National football analyst Phil Steele reported in June that dating back to the ‘01 season, 46 teams have encountered years of having 40 or more combined starts lost. Washington State's 67 starts lost to injury in '09 representing the high-water mark in the study.
North Carolina has already lost 71 combined starts and is guaranteed to lose 89 starts by the time the regular season ends on Nov. 27.
Those sobering statistics help explain the raucous celebration on the sidelines of Doak Campbell Stadium last Saturday night in Tallahassee, as coaches and staff members chest-bumped while some players laughed, some cried and others just smiled and waved to the Tar Heel faithful in the stands.
Hunter Furr, a fifth-string running back that had spent the previous six weeks on the scout team, was called upon during UNC's game-winning drive and he delivered, churning out 27 yards on three carries in the 37-35 victory over No. 24 Florida State.
After Casey Barth drilled a short field goal to give North Carolina its final lead with 55 seconds left in regulation, a handful of players – some starters, some reserves, some that had never even practiced with special teams – approached members of the coaching staff and asked to be put on the kickoff cover unit to help secure the victory.
As senior free safety Deunta Williams suggested on Monday, the '09 team's motto of "Whatever It Takes" was better suited for this season.
"It really fits this team this year," Williams said. "Everybody was crying to get on kickoff [coverage on FSU's last return], because they understood the magnitude of that kickoff. Everybody's just willing to sell out – their bodies, anything. Everybody's playing hurt. Everybody's banged up. I've been banged up since the week I got back. But it doesn't matter."
Williams credits the coaching staff for creating the necessary atmosphere for keeping this team together, but while head coach Butch Davis admits that his coaches have stayed positive through the rigors of the season, he also indicated that his staff is only able to spend 17 or 18 hours a week with the players.
That places a significant responsibility on the team leaders, which as it turns out, is a group that has grown in number during the course of the season. The wealth of upperclassmen – guys like Yates, Bruce Carter, Mike Ingersoll, Alan Pelc, Ryan Taylor, Matt Merletti and Tydreke Powell – have been anchors each and every week, but as others have returned (Shaun Draughn, Kendric Burney, Deunta Williams) and others have stepped up (Dwight Jones, Johnny White), there has been no shortage of leadership at the Kenan Football Center.
"There are a lot of guys that have knitted and held this team together," Davis said.
Davis, with more than three decades of coaching experience and a pair of Super Bowl championships on his resume, termed Saturday's victory as "one of the biggest" in his career.
"Internally, you know how hard these kids have had to fight – to practice, to play, to overcome," Davis said. "All of the distractions and the adversity… It means a great deal."
And now Johnny White becomes the next in a long list of casualties after suffering a broken clavicle in the second quarter against the Seminoles, but his teammates have become remarkably efficient in dealing with speed bumps this season.
"It's pretty remarkable how much stuff we've gone through and how many players we've lost and gotten hurt on top of that," Yates said. "It's something that none of us would have ever imagined going into the season and that we could have never predicted, but we've done such a great job of dealing with this adversity.
"It's kind of weird because now that Johnny went down, everybody feels for him, but it's just another thing that we're going to have to get over. We've gotten over everything else… It's hard for us to lose Johnny, but I'm very confident that this team will get over it and that guys will step up in his place."
In the frantic days leading up to the season opener against LSU, the '10 campaign looked to be one that fans would erase from memory as soon as it concluded. But that's no longer the case. This group of Tar Heels is doing its best to make this one of the most memorable teams in UNC's long football history.