Having just lost one of its most vocal defensive leaders in Chase Page, as well as facing a list of less severely injured players that seems to be growing daily, UNC coach John Bunting knows he can't afford to have his No. 1 quarterback go down.
No one on the depth chart is more singularly important to the Tar Heels' 2004 season hopes than their career total offense leader. Durant has been durable throughout his four previous years – not without a few injury setbacks, but there is no reason to expect his senior season will be cut short.
But what if?
"It's very important," Bunting said. "Matt Baker's ahead." However he went on to say that redshirt freshman Roger Heinz is "in the hunt," or a not too distant third.
Baker was 12-of-19 for 166 yards in limited action last season. Most of that came when he entered in the fourth quarter of what appeared to be a lost cause at N.C. State. In the 47-34 defeat in Raleigh, Baker found Adarius Bowman for a 76-yard touchdown with 2:30 left to play.
"That was big for me to get on the field and perform well," said the 6-foot-2, 209-pound Baker, from Rochester Hills, Mich. "I play better in games than I do in practices. It was good for me to get out there and compete."
Heinz, he was 4-for-8 passing for 64 yards in the Spring Game with two picks.
And that's it. Beyond Durant, there is no more game experience from which the UNC coaches can draw in the event of an emergency.
"This year more than any, if Durant goes down, I've got to be ready," Baker said. "I've got a good grasp of that. You've got to prepare like you're the starter. In one play, you could be come the starter for the rest of the year."
In this violent game, and considering the amount of time the football will be in Durant's hands, odds are Baker will be abruptly called on at some time this season. In addition, if Carolina can take early control of Division I-AA William & Mary in the season opener, then Baker and/or Heinz would surely get in some early repetitions.
"It will be good to get in the first game of the year and get experience right away," Baker said. "There were times last year when the coaches were trying to get me on the field. I'm hoping that we can get up on them early…not just so I can get in, but the rest of the guys, too. I know how it is to be a third quarterback. They all want to get on the field as well."
Baker admits it hasn't been easy biding his time, waiting for Durant's career to come to an end.
"I'm not going to lie," he says, "It's been hard sitting behind Darian. It's very easy to get complacent – to sit there and say, ‘Well, Darian's here; hopefully he won't get hurt and my fifth year will be my year.'"
Perhaps the more difficult question is who will be called upon to run the UNC offense in 2005. Don't tell Heinz he's won't be the Tar Heels' starter next season, or even the top backup this year.
"I keep myself sharp because I know that if [Durant] goes down at any point, I've got a chance to go into the game," Heinz said. "I'm battling Baker for the No. 2 spot, according to the coaches. It's wide open. He doesn't have it, and I don't have it."
Heinz (pictured on right) knew when he committed to Carolina, in the absolute best scenario he would get a chance to start by his sophomore year. The Tallahassee native said he is confident his pre-college timeline for progression is right on schedule.
"I knew when I came here I was going to redshirt, and the coaches told me I would have a shot my second year," he said. "That's exactly what they gave me, they've held to their word, and I think I'm making the most of what they're giving me. I feel good about it, being behind Darian. I've learned a lot from him. I'm just chillin' and learning from him. That's what takes up most of my time.
"I've always dreamed of being the quarterback of a college football team. Never to the caliber of North Carolina, but I'm here now. Every day I walk out to practice, I know that one day it will be me leading those guys."
Whether or not Baker or Heinz develops as the clear cut leader for Durant's vacated position remains to be seen. And even then, he may be challenged by newcomer Joey Bozich, recent commitment Cade Thompson, or another 2005 signee yet to be determined.
However it appears that at least up until the beginning of next season, the race is between Baker and Heinz.
"I feel very comfortable with either of those guys," Durant said. "I guess it all depends on what type of player Coach [Gary] Tranquill is looking for. Roger is more of a runner and Matt is more of a pocket-type passer. It all depends on the type of scheme Coach Tranquill wants to run."