Tar Heel Illustrated got a chance to speak with several of UNC's seniors Wednesday afternoon following spring practice for the first time since word came down of the NCAA sanctions handed down on the North Carolina program, including a one-year bowl ban in 2012.
The UNC seniors are naturally disappointed that they won't get a chance to finish our their careers in the postseason---the ACC championship game should Carolina qualify or a bowl game---but it doesn't appear there's going to be a mass exodus from the program.
"It would be really easy for somebody to just call it quits and we just go out there and suck this year. But I don't think that's the kind of team we are. We're going to go out there and come together, and we're going to be better for it," said offensive tackle Brennan Williams, one of several Tar Heels hold told us they're not planning on leaving Carolina.
"No (I didn't consider leaving). I'm here. I'm here. I'm a Heel until I die. So let's go," said linebacker Kevin Reddick. "It kind of hurt, just not being able to play another (bowl) game. But at the same time, we've got a family. Our family has gotten this far. Since I've been here I've been through a lot of adversity. This is just another step, you know."
"Like I told some of the guys on the team, we've just got to bond and get closer. And it will make us better as a team if we bond together, and try to go win 12 games for this program."
"I was really, really disappointed initially. I was pretty shocked they came down so hard. I guess that was harsh---it was harsh to me---but now I'm kind of putting it behind me," added offensive guard Jonathan Cooper.
THI noticed that all 14 of UNC's scholarship seniors, including injured players like Cooper, Devon Ramsay and Casey Barth, were at Wednesday's session.
So were rising seniors such as receivers Jheranie Boyd, Erik Highsmith, and Todd Harrelson, all healthy, running routes and catching passes from the Tar Heel quarterbacks.
Three rising seniors---Williams, Peyton Jenest, and Travis Bond---helped comprise Carolina's 'one' offensive line Wednesday. Jenest was working with the starters at left guard in place of Cooper, who is still rehabbing a surgically-repaired shoulder.
Defensive seniors such as Reddick, Fabby Desir, Dion Guy, Adam Curry, Sylvester Williams, and Gene Robinson were all working out.
That makes 14 seniors who, for at least now, have made the decision to stick with the Tar Heels and make the best of the situation laid at their feet for the 2012 season.
"I don't foresee it (a mass exodus of the senior class)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. "We've talked about it. We talked with all the seniors. I spoke with them as a group and then I've spoken with some of them individually and they feel they want to be here."
The announcement of the NCAA sanctions certainly came as a surprise to a lot of people in Chapel Hill---particularly the UNC coaches and players---but it also brought some relief in that there's finality to the whole situation, and now everyone associated with the program can turn the page together this spring.
"The best thing for these guys is that it's out and it's done. And now they know they can move forward. Nobody has to dwell on it anymore. They know what it is. They know we're not going to play in a bowl, but they know they can still win a Coastal Division championship," said Fedora.
"It is what it is. There's not a whole lot to say about it. We've got it. We know we've got it, so we just go forward from here. You hate it as a coach. It is what it is. There's no reason to sit around and worry about it anymore. We know what it is, and let's move forward and get better, and we'll be stronger for it---I promise you."
"We didn't expect it. We didn't expect it to be that severe. We didn't think that what the guys did was necessarily that bad," said Williams. "We're disappointed that the guys who are getting punished are us (the returning players), and everybody else is gone. But it is what it is, and we've just got to come together."
"It's a big relief (knowing the sanctions). It will take a lot of stress off some people. It's a little relief off our shoulders, and it lifts our spirits up," added Reddick.
UNC's goals as a team now shift away from postseason glory, re-directing to making the most of the 12 opportunities provided during the regular season.
"I'm just looking forward to playing the best I can and trying to win 12 games. That's our bowl game," said Cooper.
"It (the sanctions) is what it is, man. We've just got to move on, try to win 12 games, and move forward with the season and with the team," added Reddick. "Our goal is to just go out there and win 12 games. My mindset is to try and stop someone else from playing in the ACC championship or going to a bowl."
"There are still plenty of goals out there ahead of us and I don't think that every college athlete plays football just to play in a bowl game," Fedora continued.
"They're playing for more than just a bowl game. These guys have been here. They've been through a lot. They're the leaders of this football team. They know that, and I think they're excited about what the future holds."
When asked how this team will get motivated when they know ahead of time they can't win an ACC title or play in a bowl, Fedora said, 'So we'll win the Coastal Division championship. Let's go after that.'
Fedora doesn't anticipate it being particularly difficult to motivate this group of UNC players, who are battle-hardened after two years of intense scrutiny and turmoil.
"I think everybody overlooks how hard it's been on the players for the last year and a half or two years. To put the time and effort that they put in, and to have all these things hanging over their head, I think they're really relieved (for it all to be over)," Fedora said.
"It's not difficult at all (to get these players motivated). I don't think guys play the game just for a bowl. They play the game because they know how exciting it is when you step on the field when this place (Kenan Stadium) is filled. You come out here and you've got 12 opportunities to play games, and go out and compete with your teammates and try to win 12 games. There's so much more to playing than that (a bowl game)."
To their credit, Reddick and the other UNC seniors aren't feeling sorry for themselves and blaming others for the situation they currently find themselves in.
"I was here when it (the NCAA violations) happened. But I don't really look at it like that (that we're getting punished for the mistakes of others). It happens. It happens to other teams too. What we've got to do is learn from it and try not to make the same mistakes," Reddick said.
For seniors like Reddick, this spring football season is just like all the other spring seasons they've engaged in since they got to Chapel Hill.
It's about finding ways to get better on the football field., both individually and as a team.
"We've just got to come out here one day at a time learning. We may mess up, but at the same time we're going full-speed and trying to mess up full-speed, and everything will pick up as we keep going with the practices," Reddick said.