North Carolina will obviously be missing several key members of its 2010 senior class when it takes the field Thursday evening at Nashville's LP Field to take on Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
As everyone knows, some of those players won't be playing because they were either kicked off the team or ruled ineligible by the NCAA (see Marvin Austin and Greg Little).
Three more seniors (see Charles Brown, Ryan Houston, and Jonathan Smith) are sitting out this season---and obviously the bowl game---but will become members of Carolina's 2011 senior class.
Others won't be available because of injuries (see Johnny White, Zack Pianalto, Bruce Carter, Alan Pelc, and Greg Elleby).
Still another, Anthony Elzy, appears to be out because of academics.
These are obviously huge blows to the Tar Heels and its hopes of being at its competitive best against Tennessee, but the 70-plus remaining members of the UNC roster have known since August that this just wasn't going to be a normal season.
They also knew that if this UNC team was going to be competitive, many among their ranks would have to step up and get the job done.
Some, like leading receiver Dwight Jones and first-team All-ACC defensive tackle Quinton Coples, were veterans who simply needed an opportunity to step into the limelight.
But plenty others, such as sophomore defensive end Donte Paige-Moss, true freshmen defensive ends Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, true freshman cornerbacks Tre Boston and Jabari Price, and sophomore defensive backs Gene Robinson and Mywan Jackson, all had to step in and play heavily as mostly first-time contributors.
"We've still got younger guys---sophomores, juniors, and some freshmen---that had to step into roles and they had to play," said senior safety Deunta Williams.
"Jabari Price and Tre Boston, they don't know what to expect. They don't know what to do in that situation. So guys in the secondary had to step in and kind of lead those guys and hold their hand a little bit," Williams added.
In hindsight, the production of players like Paige-Moss in the trenches (43 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks), and Price and Boston in the secondary (51 combined tackles, 2 combined interceptions, 8 combined pass breakups) was invaluable to the Tar Heels' managing to stay competitive and still produce a winning record this fall.
The same could be said for Martin and Jackson (31 combined tackles, 4 combined QB hurries, 3 combined tackles for loss), and defensive backs Robinson and Jackson (43 combined tackles, 1 interception by Robinson).
Carolina will undoubtedly feature all seven of those young talents, along with multiple other younger players, in Thursday's showdown with the Volunteers.
With Carter being out of the lineup at linebacker coming off surgery, true freshman Darius Lipford figures to see more action. Lipford contributed four tackles this fall in 10 games of backup duty.
Sophomore Travis Bond will more than likely get the start for the Tar Heels at right guard in Pelc's absence, and there's a chance that redshirt freshman David Collins could get some meaningful playing time as well.
It's not only a great chance for them to have a strong performance to finish out this season, but also to build on the future beyond Thursday's game.
A good game for the Tar Heels---and especially the younger returning players---could be huge for morale and overall team confidence as they head into offseason training in January and February and then spring football shortly after that.
"They (the younger players) have been forced to mature this year, and they'll be expected to show up next year. So I think that if they go into workouts this year mature mentally and physically, they'll have a good off season," said Elzy, who UNC officials said on Monday would be out for the Music City Bowl.
"We're losing a lot of talent (after the Music City Bowl). But I think the things we learned this year were invaluable," said Williams.
"I'm hoping when they go onto the field next year they understand these things and how their talent has grown a little bit because they went through another spring ball and all that stuff. So hopefully that helps them out in the future," Williams added.
In some places in certain situations there might be some resentment or a 'less than friendly' attitude with seniors and other older players with younger guys coming in trying to compete for their positions, but Williams and other veterans on the UNC roster have taken a different approach.
Say what you want about their respective involvements in the investigations, but players like Williams and others have gone out of their way to help their younger teammates and make their transition to college life and college football easier.
"When I was a freshman, I kind of think about that when these young guys come in and trying to be there for them and make them feel a part of the family as quickly as possible," Williams said.
"I do a lot of stuff, if it's taking guys to church or talking about certain things that they shouldn't do that just deals with real life. Just how to be better young men in general," Williams added. "It doesn't really have to be on a religious level, although I am religious. A lot of guys don't like when people preach to them, especially at this age."
"I just try to show them there's a different way than everybody else is doing, and you don't have to be a follower. You can be a leader and still be cool and people will still love you and all that other stuff, so I just tried to leave that to those younger guys."
This, of course, will be Williams' curtain call as a Tar Heel player before he and the rest of his senior brethren head off to the NFL or the non-football job marketplace, but he believes that they've helped take UNC football to the next level.
He also feels that the collection of UNC players returning for the 2011 season have gotten tremendous chances to step up and shine this fall, and that experience---combined with Thursday's experience against Tennessee---can only help the upward mobility of Tar Heel football.
"I think the program is going to continue to go upward. "I think this is a year that could be a turning point for the program, and I hope so," Williams said.