Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

UNC Freshmen Survive First Collegiate Test

True freshmen logged time on defense and special teams in North Carolina's 2016 season opener.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Larry Fedora thought as many as 13 true freshmen could see the field in the season-opening loss to Georgia. Only six rookies actually played, although their experiences against the Bulldogs started the maturation process that will pay dividends for years to come.

Some freshmen, like cornerback Patrice Rene, had no doubt in their mind that they would see a lot of action in the season opener.

“They let me know early on while I was preparing,” Rene said. “With our situation with our defensive backs and lack of depth, I knew we needed to step up and I knew I was that guy that they were looking for.”

For others, it wasn’t the question of if they would play, but how much they would end up being on the field.

“Of course coaches had everyone prepared to play,” said freshman defensive end Tomon Fox said, who played over 20 snaps. “It was just a little shock to me to be out there for that long, but I think I did well with it.”

Even with Fedora’s confidence in his young players, he knew that his team wouldn’t get away without a few hiccups. The primary example would be the primary pass interference calls on Rene late in the third quarter. The Bulldogs ended up scoring on the drive and shifting the momentum of the game in their favor.

Rene, in his first college game, found solace and encouragement from his coaches and teammates after the drive.

“Everybody came and talked to me,” Rene said. “Coach Fedora was one of the first ones. He was saying it’s okay and when the first one happened to just calm down. I was in good position on both of them, I just had to turn my head around and make a play on the ball. That’s one of those little things that are fixable, but the team was very supportive. They told me to stay focused, not to let that affect me because it can go to my head.

“At the same time they knew I had to get back out there. I’m a defensive back and we need to have short memories.”

Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said he knew there would be mistakes, but that it’s just part of the learning process.

“I think they have very bright futures,” Chizik said. “We’re going to live with some growing pains that go with that; that’s just the way it is. But like we told them on Sunday, if you get thrown into this and we put you on the field, it’s because we expect you to produce. So you being a freshman or you being young isn’t your license to fail. In those situations, they have to produce. They’re out there, and they’re a part of this team, so we expect them to be productive.”

For Fox, it wasn’t the veteran presence on the sideline, but rather on the field that helped him acclimate to his surroundings during his first game.

“They give me little tips and pointers of what they see that I’m doing,” Fox said. “It helps a lot because they know what to do; they’re veterans of the game. They see what I do and try to help out. I know I can count on them.”

For many of the young Tar Heels, having a game at the Georgia Dome under their belts will only help as they look forward to the rest of the season and their careers beyond that.

“It just gets you set up for the rest of the season,” Fox said. “It’s like ‘Well, I’ve done that, so I should be ready for everything else throughout the season.’”

This week has been utilized to fix the errors and start the whittling process to minimize the poor plays and decisions with each passing week.

“I definitely think I can correct those mistakes,” Rene said. “I’ve watched film of the Georgia game to see what I did wrong and most of them were kind of technique stuff. All of those little things are correctable.”

Safety Myles Dorn, linebacker Dominque Ross, punter Tom Sheldon and linebacker Jonathan Smith joined Rene and Fox as the true freshmen that played on Saturday.

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