For players and coaches alike, mailing the season in would be very easy to do. Finish 2-10 on the year and get ready for next season. But finishing 2-10 also would mean a loss to the Duke Blue Devils. Losing to Duke would be akin to being the last kid to get picked for playground kick ball or being the first kid hit and taken out in playground dodge ball. It's just not a stigma you wanted hung around your neck. Once you are the ‘puny kid,' friend and foe alike will not allow you to shed the label easily.
So 2-10 is bad enough. 2-10 with a loss to Duke? One can only imagine the fall out. It will not be pretty I guarantee you that. How would you answer the "Coach, can you explain how you lost to Duke?" question from Johnny Hotshot Linebacker?
Head Coach John Bunting has his dream job. Last year was a dream first season. This year, while the struggles are not a total shock, has been a nightmare. Beginning with the blown knee of Eric Davis in the miserable Miami (OH) game back in August, injuries have piled up at an alarming rate. You have to feel for a guy like Will Chapman who has battled more injuries than Evel Knievel in his last two seasons. Will played through the pain of a blown knee, broken toe, torn up shoulder, and more before eventually succumbing for the year to a broken wrist. Carolina needs more warriors like Will Chapman.
The flood of injuries has resulted in a mismatched defensive front that can't stop anyone from doing everything they wish to do. Carolina's youthful front seven leaves everything on the field, unfortunately, as an 18 or 19 year old kid facing off against 21 and 22 year old men, "everything" is simply not much. Blame the head coach, blame the assistant coaches, blame the strength and conditioning coach all you want. The bottom line is men will beat boys an overwhelming percentage of the time, especially on the football field. All the coaching in the world may lower the numbers a small amount, but never tip the scale. More than anything, that is what has happened this season. (The most startling stat of the weekend for me was the fact that 20 of the 24 players in the two deep for Notre Dame are juniors and seniors while 73% of Carolina's entire team were freshmen and sophomores. That's ridiculous.)
So again, what to do?
In a year like this, I certainly wouldn't give up on the remaining four games, but everything from here on out would be done with an eye to the future. I would burn every redshirt possible. Hey rookie, you want to play? Get in there. Hey rookie, you don't want to play? Ok, that's fine, but game experience matters and the opportunity is here, take it or leave it. Your choice will be remembered when filling out the two deep next fall.
There is no substitute for game action against real opponents. Beating up tackling dummies and lifting weights is one thing. Getting used to the speed of the college game is another. Some players step right in and don't miss a beat. Others take time to get adjusted and eventually turn out okay. The rest never live up to the hype no matter what. Getting "on the job training" as soon as possible is the way I'd go. (If a player is not talented enough to play, then why are they taking up a ‘ship? But, I digress.)
Why burn redshirts when the collective voice among coaching circles says the goal of a program is to be at a level where all true freshmen can be redshirted?
Well, for one, injuries happen. If you are healthy and capable, why not play? If you redshirt a year and then suffer a season ending injury during the next four, you have cost yourself 25% of your playing career. Those rare "six-year wonders" result in the NCAA granting an extra year to a player that has suffered not one but two season ending injuries without benefit of a non-medical redshirt. And even then, the NCAA is a stingy bunch.
Also, since "going pro" has gone from an occasional phenomenon to "I can make how much?" redshirting a player can cost a team a year (or two) the services of a talented player.
Take Julius Peppers. Could Pep have contributed as a true freshman on a highly touted 1998 Carolina team that struggled to a 7-5 record? He certainly would not have hurt the cause. And since his ‘senior' season is being spent with the Carolina Panthers, the Tar Heels missed out on an opportunity.
(Sure, there will always be the Ronald Curry/Michael Vick response to my theory and it is valid here. However, Curry/Vick is not a simple "play/redshirt as a freshman" issue. Coaching circumstances and injuries played the most important role in how those two have turned out.)
Are there other things Coach Bunting and staff could do to right the ship this season? I'm not sure. If a team can't run and can't stop the run, wins are few and far between. Toss in Carolina's propensity for turnovers and wins are nearly impossible. Getting more young guys in on the action and preparing them for the future will help ensure this season is one of a kind. Judging from last week's game, Bunting is on the right track.
Have a comment on what you'd do if you were the coach? Email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name and hometown and I'll post the best responses in next week's column.