Eddy: Sticking with Durant

CHAPEL HILL -- Fans and media (me included) have about as much loyalty as a hired gun when it comes to yanking ballplayers from the lineup.

Let a guy throw an interception or have an off day, and most of us would be driving splinters in his backside faster than you can say "backup quarterback."

Fortunately for the North Carolina football program and the players in it, head coach John Bunting does not share this flaw.

If the decision came from the stands or pressbox, Ronald Curry wouldn't have been in the lineup to be the MVP at last season's Peach Bowl. For better or worse, Darian Durant would have been the only quarterback after he came on to play well in a supporting role at the start of the season.

Fast-forward to a year later and the second game of the season in 2002, a road game in a noisy dome at Syracuse. Durant is still not getting the job done after a miserable game the week before. He and center Jason Brown are continuing to struggle with simple snap exchanges.

Backup quarterback C.J. Stephens had nearly rallied the team to a victory in the first game when Durant suffered through multiple turnovers against Miami of Ohio.

But Bunting's vision is not myopic. Rather than yank Durant in the first half against Syracuse, he told his sophomore QB to relax and do his job.

"After some adversity at the quarterback and center, there was an exchange between (offensive coordinator Gary) Tranquill and myself," Bunting said. "I said, ‘We're fine.'

"There was never a doubt in mind that he would get through that first quarter and right himself. I have a lot of confidence in him because of what he's been through. The situation last year, the situation in the spring, have all made him a more mature and poised person.

"He knows how to deal with that. We were in that game. I thought it out on the sideline. ‘I want to stay with Darian Durant for the rest of this game.' We were so close in that game all along, and I thought Darian was going to do what he does best: make good decisions, be on target with the ball."

Durant did relax and he did perform, particularly in the fourth quarter, when the Tar Heels clung to the ball, took the lead and held it as if their very lives depended on it.

By sticking with his guy once again, Bunting will probably gain much more than just the Tar Heels' first victory. They've got their playmaker back, and that could mean quite a few more wins this season and in the years to come.

This doesn't mean Bunting will stay with guys when it becomes apparent they cannot do the job or someone else deserves a chance to play.

But Bunting played in high school, college and then 13 years of professional football. He understands as well as anyone what it means for a coach to stick by the guys who have earned their spots.

"It gives you confidence," Bunting said. "If things are just falling apart at some point, you need to pull a guy and say, ‘Hey, you'll be out there next week.'

"But I can remember a couple of times where (Philadelphia Eagles coach) Dick Vermeil, right there on TV, said to his quarterback, Ron Jawarski: ‘Don't ever worry about these fans booing you. You're my quarterback.' That left a lasting impression on me."

Bunting still wants to play Stephens some. He believes Stephens has earned a shot at playing, too, just not at the expense of Durant's psyche and confidence.

As for Durant, the kid who once thought life might be better with a different football team, he has learned there may be no better guy to have on his side than John Bunting.

"It said a lot," Durant said. "It shows he has faith in me. He has confidence in my ability. I have been in big games before. I just wasn't performing too well early on, but I calmed down at halftime and went out there and played like I played last year."

Now the Tar Heels are preparing for the next game, a contest against third-ranked Texas and a defense awash in speed and strength. If Carolina finds a way to succeed, it will more than likely be because Bunting stuck with his veteran QB and the kid returns the favor with an extraordinary game.

Durant says that he is certainly looking forward to the chance.

"I'm excited," Durant said. "This is my first night game here. Every night scrimmage we've had in Kenan, I've played pretty well. Hopefully that can carry over to the game.

"There is going to be a lot of electricity out there. There is something about night games that brings chills all over my body. I'm going to be pumped up. I'm going to be the guy who is most pumped up on this whole team."

Eddy Landreth, a freelance writer living in Pittsboro, N.C., is a former ACC beat writer for the Durham Herald-Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Charlotte Observer.

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