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December 25, 2011

One for the Seniors

For those eager for a fresh start in the history of North Carolina's football program, Monday's Independence Bowl may not mean a whole awful lot.

But don't tell that to UNC's seniors---a group of at least 17 players whose run as Tar Heels will come to a conclusion on a cold, potentially wet field in Shreveport.

In so many ways this group of Tar Heel seniors have been through the ringer, and Monday's contest against Missouri climaxes what has been a true roller coaster of highs and lows.

Ironically, most of the seniors who are set to play Missouri on Monday were not directly involved in the NCAA investigation that got their prior coaches fired.

Those players, like the UNC coaching assistants who had nothing to do with investigation as well, were victims of circumstance, as they sat by helplessly and watched the team deprived of key members, and ultimately they'll see games they went out and won vacated from the record books.

I'm talking about guys like Quinton Coples, who managed to stay eligible and will wind up graduating despite tremendous scrutiny and pressure suggesting he was somehow involved in the wrongdoing.

"I've been through it all, from struggles in Kinston to University problems. I've done been through it all. There's not much life can throw at me now that I won't be able to overcome," Coples said prior to UNC's departure to Shreveport.

Coples knows a thing or two about Tar Heel football history, and he was proud to reflect that he's part of a group of four-year UNC players who are the first in over a decade to play in four straight bowl games.

"I looked at the history of Carolina, and I think it was the late 1990s since the team reached four bowls straight. I'm definitely honored and I thank God to be blessed to be in this position with my teammates," he said.

There's also a guy like Ryan Houston, who will suit up for the last time in the Tar Heels Monday as the pro-style offense he's played in the last five seasons also departs with the arrival of new coach Larry Fedora and his 'spread' approach.

"Just the fact it's my last week with my homeboys---my last week in the stadium. It was my last time in the meeting room. It's something you've got to take in. I'm just going to really enjoy Shreveport and just being around my teammates once last time," Houston said.

Houston wouldn't have been in this position, playing in his final game at UNC this year, had he not been held back for the season in 2010 after being suspended half the season as part of the 'academic prong' of the NCAA investigation.

Houston was cleared and able to resume his UNC career although he was forced to miss several games of what was supposed to be his senior season, for reasons that are still not entirely certain.

But through it all, Houston managed to complete his undergraduate course of study and graduate. Which is more that can be said about the roughly 30 percent of Division I college football players around the country who won't get their undergraduate degrees.

"It's kind of surreal for me. I graduated on Sunday (before Christmas). That was a big deal with my family being there and my mom crying," Houston said.

Houston hasn't exactly gotten cheated because he's been able to get an entire season back in 2011, but now he's found himself playing behind one of the most dynamic players to play in the Tar Heel backfield in years in Giovani Bernard.

But the veteran Tar Heel back doesn't seem to have any regrets about his college experience, or about his decision to come to UNC.

"Just to be part of Carolina football one last year (was a good thing)," he said. "I had five years of great times in my life. I just love this University and I love being here, and for it to end, it's kind of sad, but it's a new chapter in my life."

Always a threat on short yardage, third down, and goal line plays, don't be surprised if Houston finds himself in position to help the Tar Heels one last important time Monday.

While he may not play as much as Bernard, Houston is grateful that he's able to take the field again after being forced to sit out last year's Music City Bowl as he took the redshirt season.

"Last year at Music City I was there with my teammates. I was on the sidelines. It was cold---real cold. But just the grind of being out there, it was just hard for me to have a patch on my jersey and knowing I'm not getting in. It was just real hard for me," he said.

"It's my last bowl game I'm going to play, and it's just going to be a 'real' feeling. We're anxious," Houston added.

There's also a player like Dwight Jones, who went unscathed through the NCAA situation but found himself in a little hot water in the week prior to the game after a photograph with his likeness was seen on social media in regards to a New Year's party in Jones' hometown of Burlington.

Jones was briefly suspended and realistically could have sat out what would have been his last chance to play for the Tar Heels, but he was reinstated the day before the team departed to prepare for Monday's showdown with Mizzou.

"Dwight's apologized for the mistake he made. He didn't know it was a problem, and he did everything he could do to rectify the problem," said outgoing UNC head coach Everett Withers. "I'm just happy for Dwight (that he can play). I'm happy for his ability to play his last ball game at Carolina. Obviously we're happy for the team, and we're happy for Dwight."

This may have been a slap on the wrist for Jones as he winds up his Tar Heel tenure, but it should serve as a good lesson to UNC's returning players to avoid similar situations that could jeopardize their eligibility.

"You've just got to make professional decisions. You've got to think outside of yourself and outside the box," Coples said about Jones' situation.

"You tend to get to the collegiate level and you tend to underestimate the media actually watching you. Overall I think you've just got to be professional about every decision you make, and everything will take care of itself."

Of course, there's plenty of other Tar Heel seniors as well as Coples, Houston, and Jones.

Guys like Tydreke Powell, Jordan Nix, Cam Holland, Zach Brown, Christian Wilson. and Curtis Byrd, who will all take the field for the final time as UNC players Monday afternoon in Shreveport.

There's still others like Matt Merletti, Jonathan Smith, and Charles Brown---a trio of Tar Heel secondary veterans---who are all coming off significant injuries in the fall but are hopeful to see one last bit of action in the Tar Heel colors.

These were all members of UNC's 2007 and 2008 signing classes, the first two under the watch of Butch Davis and his ill-fated Tar Heel regime.

These were the players that were supposed to take North Carolina football to the Promised Land, and now one can only speculate aimlessly as to what they might have accomplished if things had gone differently and the program not been flipped upside down.

But the simple fact of business is that change has come to Chapel Hill and Monday's ball game in Shreveport is truly it---the final chapter and a historic bookend on one of the darkest periods in the history of Tar Heel athletics.

It's also a time where the University and the football program can potentially turn the corner and finally get over the hump to attain some of the heights the school's fans have always thought the UNC program was capable of reaching.

For those players who will get a chance to redeem themselves and the program next season and beyond under Fedora, there's been a couple of recurring themes heading into this particular game.

The two big motivating factors have been sending out these seniors and coaches out the right way with a triumph---giving them something to fondly remember as they scatter off away from Chapel Hill in many various directions in the coming weeks and months.

"I want to go out here and play my butt off to get the win for the seniors, with all the stuff they've been through," said junior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.

"Obviously I want to get those guys another win, as well as myself another win so as we part ways, we'll always have a good experience, and also something to remember."

"I really just think the whole team is on the same page," said sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner. "That's what the whole goal is for this trip. Business as usual. We want to send the seniors and this coaching staff out (with a win), who's meant a lot to this program. I think it's huge."

While players like Williams and Renner weren't even part of the UNC program when most of the alleged NCAA infractions occurred, they've certainly paid the price in terms of losing the head coach that recruited them to Chapel Hill, as well as the coaches they've grown to trust and greatly respect.

But they have a sense of compassion for these seniors, who arguably had the most to lose from everything that went down because they were the ones in the primes of their careers, poised to make noise in the ACC standings in 2010 and 2011, before the suspensions and dismissals shook up the UNC depth chart.

"This has been my first year here, and I've been through some of the stuff, but obviously those guys have got the most scars. Me, I'm just hurting from the outside. I'm looking from the outside in. Those guys are hurting on the inside as well," Williams said.

With a 7-5 record and a bowl game in an undesirable location such as Shreveport the day after Christmas, it's easy to assume that some guys might pack it in and go through the motions on both sides of the football Monday.

But it's not all about showcasing for 'The League,' as some might cynically suggest.

"I haven't really paid much attention to that (the NFL)," said Coples, who many feel is a surefire first rounder in the 2012 NFL Draft. "I'm just trying to win this game. After this game, I'll be taking all the necessary steps to becoming a professional athlete."

These Tar Heel seniors have lived and breathed together for several years, and the abrupt conclusion of it all can't be fully comprehended until much later---long after everyone has gone their separate ways.

"We're all going off to different places training and having different careers. This is like our last time together. It's going to be very emotional Monday," Houston said.

And for those UNC players who haven't yet fully ridden out the ride---as well as the Tar Heel coaches who will be moving on themselves immediately after Monday's game--- there's a focus and determination to do right by the seniors and do whatever it takes to beat Missouri.

"We want it really bad. We've had a great couple of practices. I think we're ready to play for these seniors, to send them out right. They've done a lot for us (helping us) growing up and maturing. We want to send them out with a win," said Renner.

"To me it's very important (to win this game)," added Williams. "I've got a huge amount of respect for those guys. They're like my brothers. And obviously I'm going to miss those guys, being back next year and those guys (will be gone). I'm going to miss those guys."

"The life of any football team is not long, and all football teams are special to you. And this one is special because of what these kids have gone through," said Coach Withers.

"I think we feel responsible to each other and the seniors. It's another opportunity to play another ball game, so we're looking forward to it."

"My feeling is I want to make sure these seniors (go out with a win)---that's my only focus. I don't know if I'll get real nostalgic, but my obligation is to make sure these seniors go out the right way," Withers added.






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