Photo courtesy Kimberly Rivers
“It’s been a long camp,” Larry Fedora said at his Monday press conference. “You’re at that point in the season here early that you’re tired of practicing against each other, and you’re tried of preparing. You’re ready to get out on the field and find out what your team’s made of. As coaches, you feel like there’s never enough time. There are so many more things to do, but the players are ready to go. They want to play. We’re excited about Saturday getting here.”
And so here it is, Saturday, September 2, and we are just hours away now from the kickoff of the 2017 season. And just as the players and coaches are eager to get on the field and test their mettle against Cal, the fans that will pack Kenan Stadium or experience the game from home are excited to see what the season will bring. It has been that rare preseason in which we know so little about the Tar Heels that will run out of the tunnel and take the field. We are both hopeful and nervous.
The drips of information that have come out of open practice periods and closed scrimmages have been predictably bland, by design. We don’t know who will start at quarterback. We don’t know who will step up in the backfield or at receiver. We don’t know who will anchor a deep but youthful defensive line. We have our predictions, but until today, they have just been that.
The coaches are in a similar situation. They know better than us who will stand behind center and take the first snap, who will get the first carry, who will be in position to make the first tackle behind the line of scrimmage, but when the ball is kicked, they will watch and learn along with the rest of us.
As offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said this week, college football is somewhat unique in that the first time one team kicks it off to another, it counts. High school has jamborees. Professional football has an interminable preseason. College football has Week One.
“The first time we get to see what they’re all about is when they’re live out there,” Kapilovic said. “So that’s when we’ve got to make adjustments, and that’s when you get them calmed down on the sideline, and you’ve got to start figuring how who are the guys you can really count on.”
The fans too will be consulting their depth charts throughout the game. The first several plays could happen without a Tar Heel veteran touching the ball. The kickoff could go to true freshman Dazz Newsome. The first offensive snap from Cam Dillard (graduate transfer from Florida) will go to Brandon Harris (graduate transfer, LSU) or Chazz Surratt (redshirt freshman) or Nathan Elliott (six career pass attempts), who might hand the ball off to true freshman Michael Carter or sophomore Jordon Brown, he of the 20 career rushing attempts.
The preseason scrimmages are over. The time is now to put a game plan together, put something good on film and build a foundation for the season. “It’s kind of like getting prepared for war, when you’ve got rubber bullets as opposed to live ones” wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer said of moving from training camp to game day. “Live ones can kill you; the rubber ones just hurt. So, it’s a little bit different. These are going to be live, so all of a sudden coming across the middle is going to be different. Playing at our tempo when it counts is a little bit different. Game on the line, a little bit different. So, it’ll be different.”
For the players, the hitting, the temperature and the rate of work will be different. There will be consequences for every play, points on the board when it works out right and lost yards or turnovers when it doesn’t.
And as fans, we know what we want. We want to stand up and cheer for a team that puts points on the board, gets stops, a team with wins and winning personalities. We’d rather fill Kenan Stadium deep into November than turn our eyes longingly down Skipper Bowles Drive in mid-October. That all can wait. Today, we’ll find out some of what we’ve got in hand.
“We will see whether our preparation is paying off or not,” Jordon Brown said this week. “We’ve been working hard since the spring up to this point, and this is what we’ve all been waiting for. We’re ready to go out there and give it all we’ve got and be 1-0.”
So are we, Jordon. Here we go.