Senior Applause

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina will honor 17 seniors before its season finale against Duke on Saturday, marking the end of the road for a group of Tar Heels that endured arguably the two most difficult seasons in UNC football history.

The program's potential was limitless in the early summer months of '10, or at least it seemed that way before news of the NCAA investigation broke in mid-July. The current senior class had watched former head coach Butch Davis rebuild UNC from the depths of the John Bunting era to a top-20 preseason national ranking following an 8-5 record in '09, but the highly-anticipated season opener against LSU in '10 lost its shine with the news – coming roughly 36 hours before kickoff – that 13 players would sit out.

Fourteen players ultimately missed at least one game and 11 were suspended. North Carolina lost 89 starts to injury and suspension in 2010. In UNC's loss to Miami last October, 23 scholarship players were not available to play. For a point of reference, consider that Clemson has had 15 players miss a combined 31 games through 11 games this season.

Those suspensions and injuries added to nearly 17 months of adversity and harsh criticism that culminated with the firing of Davis just eight days before the start of training camp in July. And while the burden of the past two seasons seemingly caught up with the Tar Heels last month, the mere fact that UNC has won 14 games during that span is a testament to the strength and leadership capabilities of the upperclassmen directing the charge.

It would have been easy for this program to crumble, but this senior class played a significant role in preventing that outcome from happening.

"For this football team to handle what they've gone through over the last two years has been remarkable," interim head coach Everett Withers said on Monday. "For them to do the things that we've asked them to do, to go out and practice, to go out and compete, to go out and do the things daily that we ask them to do, it's been remarkable. Because I'm not sure there's many teams in the country that could hang on like we have."

Red-shirt sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner had been on campus a little more than 12 months when the NCAA investigators arrived in Chapel Hill. He credits the upperclassmen with bringing the younger players into team meetings to keep them involved and help to unify the team.

"I've learned a lot from these seniors," Renner said. "They've taught me how to handle adversity and how to go through things that aren't always going to go your way. I think that's something that I'll take with me for the rest of my life."

The problem when talking about a "class" of players is that they all merge into one and the uniqueness of the individual is lost in the process. But this group of seniors has so many stories to tell.

Take Cam Holland, for example. The senior center grew up in a tough part of Pittsburgh and took two 45-minute bus rides to school every morning and then back home again. The Biology major will start his 30th career game on Saturday and plans to apply to UNC's Pharmacy school to continue his education.

Then there's Matt Merletti, who became Davis's first-ever commitment at UNC on Dec. 12, 2006. His father, Lewis, is a former Secret Service director and his brother, Michael, is a Captain in the Army Rangers. Merletti tore the ACL in his right knee in '09 and sprained the MCL and ACL in his left knee in October, but the team's defensive captain could possibly return for UNC's bowl game.

Defensive linemen Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell join linebacker Zach Brown as likely NFL draft picks next April, while players like safeties Jonathan Smith and Brian Gupton spent the bulk of their careers on special teams before earning significant playing time in their final season.

Ryan Houston arrived on campus standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 273 pounds, prompting various observers to pencil the Matthews, N.C. native in along the offensive or defensive lines. Three years later, Houston had trimmed nearly 40 pounds off his frame and now has 25 career rushing touchdowns, 12 coming from one-yard out.

But there may not be a story quite like that of Dwight Jones. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder earned distinction as one the nation's top wide receiver prospects as a high school senior in 2007. After failing to qualify for Division I football, Jones attended Hargrave Military Academy to improve his test scores.

However, Jones learned in July '08 that he had not met the necessary requirements and decided to enroll at Division II Valdosta State. Upon arriving at Valdosta – and after practicing for several days – Jones was informed that a mix-up had occurred with his NCAA Clearinghouse admissions.

The NCAA changed the required number of core classes from 14 to 16 between the 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes. With Jones graduating high school in 2007, he should have only been required to have 14 core classes, but instead was evaluated with needing 16 core classes.

After pondering whether or not he wanted to return to North Carolina, Jones finally made the move. Now, four years later, the Burlington, N.C. native has become just the second UNC wide receiver in history to record 1,000 yards in a season (1,018 in ‘11) and ranks seventh all-time in career receiving yards. Jones needs 205 yards in his last two games to break Hakeem Nicks' single-season receiving yardage record.

Jones addressed a question on his journey Monday that likely applies to all of his fellow senior classmates.

"This is how God had my success prepared for me," Jones said. "I wouldn't take it any other way. People are going to have different paths throughout their career and throughout their life. Some people are going to have straight roads and some are going to have curvy roads with bumps.

"I've been through ups and downs and that made me the player that I am today."

A win over Duke would put this senior class in position to etch its numerals in the UNC history books with a second-straight bowl victory. Two more wins would make this group just the third class in school history to win eight games in four consecutive seasons and the first since '83-84.

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