Upperclassmen such as Bryn Renner, Jonathan Cooper, Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams earn the majority of the headlines for this North Carolina team, and deservedly so. In order for the Tar Heels to build on Larry Fedora’s first season in Chapel Hill, however, the youth on the roster must mature and produce.
The inexperienced players can only lose that tag by seeing live action, as many did on Saturday.
From that standpoint, UNC’s 66-0 throttling of Idaho accomplished that goal. But it’s not as though the underclassmen only benefitted once the game was out of hand – they helped to fuel the scoring barrage early.
Sophomore running back Gio Bernard (two carries, 70 yards, 2 TD; four catches, 50 yards), sophomore wide receiver Sean Tapley (one catch, 36 yards, TD) and freshman Quinshad Davis (four catches, 89 yards, 2 TD) combined for four of UNC’s first five touchdowns.
Red-shirt freshman running back Romar Morris blocked a punt to set up Bernard first touchdown run and red-shirt freshman left tackle Kiaro Holts – starting in place of the injured James Hurst – opened a hole for the All-ACC tailback to run through for the score.
“It’s great to get as many reps as we’ve gotten with [the younger players], because that’s only going to pay off down the road when those guys have to play for us,” Fedora told reporters during his postgame press conference. “Because that’s going to happen. They’re going to have to play.
“Kiaro Holts started the game at left tackle today and did a great job the entire game. We got a lot of guys reps. Quinshad Davis had a really nice game and he’s coming into his own. He’s starting to feel more and more comfortable. So every rep that those younger guys get, the better we’re going to be as a football team.”
Davis added a second 35-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter and red-shirt freshman backup quarterback Marquise Williams (3-of-7 passing, 57 yards, TD; 10 rushes, 61 yards, 2 TD) threw his first career touchdown pass and ran for UNC’s final two scores.
For Morris, his pair of touchdowns and 202 all-purpose yards against Louisville provided the foundation for his rapid development both on offense and special teams.
“That gave me a lot of confidence, because it proved that I can actually do it,” Morris said. “It’s not a shock to me when I do it now, so I know I can actually do it when I get out there.”
That type of exposure will hold true for all of the underclassmen that earn playing time, regardless of the level of opponent.
“We’ve got a pretty good team; we’ve got a young team,” Morris said. “Everybody’s learning every day. Everybody’s growing and the young guys are really helping the team out.”
There were plenty of youngsters that made plays on the defensive side of the ball as well on Saturday.
Red-shirt freshman linebacker Jeff Schoettmer led UNC with seven tackles, while red-shirt freshman cornerback Alex Dixon finished second with five tackles. Freshman defensive backs Darien Rankin and T.J. Jiles both recorded their first career interceptions and freshman corner Malik Simmons notched a fumble recovery to go along with a vicious hit at the line of scrimmage.
The underclassmen performances against Idaho fired up the veterans on the roster as it reinforced their leadership efforts.
“That means a lot to me because that shows that those guys are looking at the guys in front of them and paying attention,” Williams said. “You’ve got guys like T.J. Jiles, who’s a freshman that hasn’t had a chance to play much, for him to come in and play effective… He had a few big hits, a few tackles and an interception.
“I told those guys, ‘This shows that you’re paying attention in practice and really buying into the system.’ Because they could sit in practice and say that they’re not going to play and lollygag around and when their time comes, not be ready. But they were prepared, so when the time came, they were ready to go out and execute the game plan. They showed up and guys were able to make plays and celebrate.”
As Fedora said, the young Tar Heels are going to be required to contribute this season, although the true value in these live snaps will be evident in the years to come.
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