“Those guys are mature for their age,” senior defensive Kareem Martin told reporters following UNC’s 45-14 victory over Virginia. “They’re young, but they came in here expecting to make a difference.”
The sophomore class took the stage in the first quarter with Marquise Williams and Quinshad Davis rotating roles for a pair of touchdown passes to build a 14-0 lead. Williams found Davis at the goal line for a 8-yard score on UNC’s first possession.
On UNC’s second drive, Davis took a reverse pitch and threw his second touchdown pass of the season to a wide open Williams down the right sideline for a 29-yard strike.
The freshmen got involved in the second quarter as A-back Ryan Switzer returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give UNC a 21-0 halftime lead.
Williams opened the second-half scoring with a three-yard touchdown run before freshman safety Dominique Green effectively sealed the win with a 62-yard interception return for touchdown. Williams finalized the touchdown assault by finding freshman tailback Khris Francis on a delayed screen for a 15-yard pass play.
“This freshman class is going to be pretty special,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “Not only are they playing for us, they’re making plays for us.”
The second-year UNC coach rattled off various players in that rookie class, names such as Francis, Switzer, Bug Howard, Lucas Crowley on offense and Green, Brian Walker, Desmond Lawrence and Mikey Bart on the defensive side.
“To be honest, they don’t play like they’re freshmen,” Williams said. “They feel like they can make plays and that’s why we put them out there, to make plays.”
According to Switzer, the freshmen are now comfortable in their roles after playing nine games at the collegiate level.
“We don’t consider ourselves freshmen anymore,” Switzer said. “We’ve grown up a lot. And I think for me personally, it’s night and day since I got here just learning the different techniques and aspects of the game.”
While the true freshmen received the bulk of the attention during postgame interviews, the second- and third-year players that round out the freshman and sophomore classes are also producing.
Three underclassmen – Landon Turner, Caleb Peterson and Jon Heck - are starting on the offensive line, Williams is running the offense and Davis tag teams with junior Eric Ebron as the primary receiving targets. Romar Morris led UNC in rushing with 48 yards on Saturday, while linebacker Jeff Schoettmer paced the Tar Heels with eight tackles.
“The future’s really bright here, especially with the young guys that are producing,” Switzer said.
North Carolina’s three-game winning streak has plenty to do with underclassmen contributions, which also played a role in the early season struggles.
“We took some hits early in the season,” Switzer said. “We had some rookie mistakes and we had some overall team mistakes that we’re not making anymore. Who knows what the season could have been like, but we’re on a good roll right now. Our plan is to win out from here and get the momentum going and the hype going for next season.”
Of all of the lessons the upperclassmen have taught their younger counterparts, perseverance could be the most critical.
“The freshmen and sophomores, when we become upperclassmen, we’re going to remember how the seniors here led us and how they kept a level head when things weren’t going well and how they didn’t tank in the season,” Switzer said. “It’s going to help the younger guys down the road. It’s just another experience that we’re going to be able to share with the guys that come in.”
The future is still a ways away. For now, this collection of underclassmen is intent on winning out and playing in a bowl game.