The 2011 football regular season has come to an end, and even though the Tar Heels have a bowl game left to play I've found myself looking ahead to next season a lot this week.
The future came into focus the most when the All-Atlantic Coast Conference squads were announced and I noticed four of the eight UNC players honored were seniors.
Guys like Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell, Dwight Jones and Zach Brown have been mainstays for much of the last two or three seasons and will be sorely missed.
So will other major contributors like Curtis Byrd, Ryan Houston, Charles Brown, Cam Holland, Matt Merletti and others whose college careers will end after the bowl game later this month.
But as I started looking at the future and considering the replacements for departing players, two things became clear.
First, UNC has recruited well in recent years because there are some talented players set to step in for those leaving. Second, most of those who will move into starting roles next fall have already seen extensive playing time and several have even started games.
Let's start with the all-league guys as examples.
Coples started all 12 games, most of them at left defensive end. Behind him was sophomore Tim Jackson, who played in all 12 games this season and nine as a true freshman in 2010 when he actually made five starts.
Brown, who led UNC with 91 tackles, was the starter at the weakside linebacker spot. He was backed up by true freshman Travis Hughes, who appeared in all 12 games and made one start.
Jones didn't come off the field very often at wide receiver. But when he did, guys like Jheranie Boyd (12 games, 1 start), Sean Tapley (12-1) and T.J. Thorpe (12-0) were in reserve.
Boyd, Tapley and Thorpe all return next fall.
The situation is similar at most other positions where seniors are departing.
You'll likely have Russell Bodine (8 games, 2 starts) taking over for Holland at center, a Jabari Price (7-2) or Terry Shankle (4-0) moving into Brown's cornerback spot, and Gene Robinson (12-5) sliding over from free to strong safety for Jonathan Smith.
The exception may be at Powell's defensive tackle spot.
Both Powell and his backup, Jordan Nix, are seniors.
Besides the other tackle starter, Sylvester Williams, the most experienced players at that position returning will be redshirt freshman Ethan Farmer, and true freshmen Devonte Brown and Shawn Underwood.
Farmer and Underwood played in four games and Brown just one this season.
Other young players who move into more significant roles include safety Brandon Ellerbe (8 games, 0 starts), safety D.J. Bunn (6-0), outside linebacker Norkeithus Otis (6-0), tight end Jack Tabb (10-0) and redshirt freshmen like Alex Dixon at cornerback, center Jarrod James, and linebacker Keeon Virgile.
Of course, one of the advantages of receiving a bowl bid is that it'll give the coaching staff extra time to help prepare some of these younger players for expanded roles next fall.
Although there are no specific guidelines on how many practices a team can hold prior to a bowl game, they are still bound by the regular-season rules of a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week.
So conceivably the Tar Heels could squeeze in a week of workouts prior to Christmas and a couple of more on site, if they wind up in Washington, D.C., for the Military Bowl on the 28th.
Either way, it's an added benefit as UNC begins to plan its future.