To a program that has hung its hat on the future, losing Bowman, Sparkman and Thomas could prove to be crippling.
Bowman has NFL-talent written all over him, and before his second collegiate season was severed – either partially or completely – Bowman had clearly "broken out" as the Tar Heels' leading receiver with 329 yards and three touchdowns in six games.
But UNC's depth at receiver, and its perceived offensive capabilities before the recent injuries to Darian Durant, Ronnie McGill and Jacque Lewis, minimizes Bowman's loss, at least from a short-term perspective.
However the loss of Sparkman and Thomas to an already fragile defense, which relies on week-by-week momentum in hopes of approaching competitiveness, has the potential of being far more damaging this season and beyond.
Whether it represents a band-aid until Sparkman's return or a permanent change, the Tar Heels have moved resurgent Larry Edwards to the all-important middle linebacker position, while junior and one-time starter Doug Justice has moved up the depth chart to backup.
"I'm just trying to go the extra mile to take on the responsibility of knowing everybody's assignment so I can call the plays," Edwards said.
But Edwards had already earned his way back into the lineup with his performance against the Wolfpack. More than anybody else, Justice has seen his role resurface as a result of the loss of Sparkman.
"Of course when we lose two key players it hurts a lot," Justice said. "But they're still just parts of our team as a whole. And I think a lot of guys have stepped up. We've switched some positions and done some good things. It was just a little bit of a juggling act, but everybody's settling in.
"We definitely can improve. We lose two guys, but two guys doesn't make up an entire defense."
The Tar Heels are 3-4, and after Saturday, the worst of its NCAA-toughest schedule will be behind them. A six-win bowl eligible season remains a possibility. And if Carolina is able to win three out of its last four (Miami, Virginia Tech, at Wake, at Duke), it will be accomplished with a defense that has had to steadily endure positions shifts since training camp.
And as a product of Edwards' latest move, Justice's career has been reborn as a player and a mentor.
"I've been real pleased with Doug Justice, but that's no surprise," Bunting said. "He's a smart player and he's been looking forward to getting more playing time. He knows all the sets, while Larry is still struggling at times to learn those sets.
"[Edwards] is still behind, but last week at Utah it was different; he was playing nickel – a two-linebacker defense. This week we're back to a three-linebacker defense, against an offense that does a lot with the run game. So you need a guy that's got some training, and Doug's got a lot of that."
True freshman defensive tackle Terry Hunter, who got off to a slow start due to undisclosed personal problems, was contributing before Thomas was lost. His level of contribution has also increased immensely since the suspensions.
"I'm feeling real comfortable," Hunter said. "Obviously, things didn't go down the way I wanted them to. It just feels good to get back into the feel of the game."
Edwards thinks not only can the team absorb and overcome this most recent adversity, but he says the Tar Heels are just one breakout game away from turning the corner on defense.
"We're real close," Edwards said. "We just keep getting better and better. We need to continue to get better at the little things. Techniques and fundamentals are the keys to becoming a better football team – offensively and defensively."
This may not be the best week to test out new alignments, with the streaking Hurricanes coming to town.
"Miami is an excellent football team, and what I've noticed is they've gotten better offensively as the year has gone on," co-defensive coordinator John Gutekunst said. "The quarterback is playing real well, it's hard to tell the receivers apart – they've all got good speed, and I'm real impressed with the running backs – especially [Frank] Gore and [Tyrone Moss].
"We've just got to get better – tackle better – we've just got to do everything better."
Injury Report for Miami game
Defensive end Melik Brown (concussion), tailback Ronnie McGill (left ankle), tight end Justin Phillips (left ankle), fullback/linebacker Cori Powell (right knee), linebacker/defensive end Hilee Taylor (stress reaction, right femur), and linebacker Victor Worsley (right elbow) will not play.
Tailback Jacque Lewis (back).
Offensive lineman Scott Lenahan (hamstring).
Defensive end Khalif Mitchell (back), tight end Scott Brumett (back).