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“I don’t really know what to say. It is what it is.”
The rash of injuries—actually not so much a rash at this point as a full-blown plague of boils—that has befallen his team in 2017 rendered North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora nearly speechless after Saturday’s loss against rival Duke.
In recent weeks, the injury situation in Chapel Hill has gone from bad to worse to Greek tragedy. Only two of the five offensive line starters against Old Dominion had been expected to start as of the preseason, and Carolina lost another (tackle William Sweet) for the season against ODU. The Heels also lost wide receiver Thomas Jackson (one of the few experienced players on the offense) to a season-ending knee injury against the Monarchs. Defensive tackle Jalen Dalton—the most disruptive player of Carolina’s defensive front—missed the Duke game and will likely miss more time with an injury also sustained against ODU.
Offensive linemen Bentley Spain and Cam Dillard returned to action against Duke, but the injury woes nevertheless continued, as senior receiver Austin Proehl suffered a broken clavicle and Jackson’s replacement, Rontavius “Toe” Groves, went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. Defensive end Tyler Powell also appears to have sustained a significant leg injury against the Blue Devils.
Every football team lives by the mantra of “next man up,” as injuries are an inevitable part of a violent collision sport, but there’s no denying the impact injuries have had on Carolina’s 2017 campaign. As Fedora acknowledged on Saturday, the injuries to Jackson, Proehl, and Groves meant replacements “trying to play a position that they haven’t worked on a single time in practice.”
The 2016 season was plagued by injuries, but after only four games, the 2017 squad is already guaranteed to lose more starts to injury than the 31 lost by last year’s group. Combined with the 1–3 start in the record books, and it’s safe to say the first quarter of the 2017 season has been disappointing even for the most pessimistic Tar Heel football fans. Given the difficulty of the upcoming schedule (next three games: at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and Virginia), making a bowl in 2017 will be an uphill battle.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
There have nevertheless been quite a few positives—some unexpected—through the first four games. Redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt continues to play far better than expected, showing that he can stretch the field with both his arm (151.51 passer rating) and his legs, including a 56-yard touchdown scamper against Duke that was the longest run by a UNC quarterback since Darian Durant’s 63-yard TD at Clemson in 2003.
Receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams has also emerged as a consistent deep threat capable of winning jump balls in the passing game, which should help keep defenses honest and thereby help the Tar Heels running game.
The return of nickel cornerback Myles Woolfolk has also helped shore up the Carolina secondary, and the UNC pass rush has also seemed to find its footing in the past two games.
Despite the on-field results, Carolina continues to maintain good momentum on the recruiting front, hosting running back Mychale Salahuddin, a current Southern Cal commitment from Washington, D.C., on an official visit over the weekend. Four-star quarterback commitment Tyler Shough also traveled from Arizona for an unofficial visit and was joined by fellow commits Jordyn Adams, Payton Wilson and Chris Collins, all of whom assisted the UNC coaching staff in their efforts to sway Salahuddin to the Tar Heels.