Overcoming Injury and History

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 18 North Carolina emerged from the weekend with an important victory, but also suffered a crucial loss as Brandon Tate is done for the season. Now, the Tar Heels must prepare for a road trip to Virginia that has been nothing short of cruel over the past 25 years.

Tate – arguably the leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year honors – tore both his ACL and MCL during the first quarter of Saturday's win over Notre Dame, leaving a huge void for this North Carolina program. The senior from Burlington, N.C. is not special because he did one thing particularly well – he is special because he does a variety of things exceptionally well.

Need Tate to run the ball? He tallied 106 rushing yards in the season opener against McNeese State. Need him to catch the ball? How's 138 yards and a touchdown on four receptions against Rutgers sound?

And on top of those exploits, we all know what he brought to the table for the special teams unit – Tate finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in combined kick return yards with 3,523 yards.

"We don't have another Brandon Tate that we can take off the shelf and plug him into the game and say, ‘Everything is normal. We'll just go [back to] business as usual,'" head coach Butch Davis said during his weekly Monday press conference. "For a period of time, it may take two or three guys to fill that role and it will give some guys some opportunities. As was the case when T.J. Yates got hurt and went down, Cam Sexton stepped up and stepped in, and that's what we need now."

For an offense that has already dealt with losing its starting quarterback for a significant period of time, the players fully intend to keep their momentum moving forward.

"You can't replace a Brandon Tate, and we never will, but somebody's going to have to fill that role," Sexton said. "We'll be prepared to replace him."

Standout junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks echoed those sentiments.

"Guys just have to step up," Nicks said. "I have no doubt in my mind that Brooks Foster will be able to step up and carry the load. Cooter Arnold has got to step up [and] Kenton Thornton. So it's just a matter of guys having to step up and know their role."

But while Nicks pointed to a couple of options at wide receiver, who will be responsible for taking on the bigger challenge of assuming Tate's duties as a kick and punt returner? Opponents have strategically kicked away from Tate for much of the season, resigned to giving the Tar Heels good field position so long as the senior specialist didn't have the opportunity for a homerun return.

That will no longer be the case, which puts an increased level of stress on Nicks and his fellow returners – whoever they may be. Johnny White replaced Tate at kick returner on Saturday, but if he stays at that position is anyone's guess, because Davis is not about to share those personnel decisions with the media.

"We've got ideas, but rather than fax them to you or to Al Groh, we thought we'd maybe sit on them," Davis told one media member on Monday.

Tate could have been a determining factor in North Carolina breaking the Charlottesville curse that has draped itself over this program since last winning at UVa in 1981, as the Cavaliers are allowing 23.7 yards per kick return (96th nationally). As such, the Tar Heels will continue to rely on their opportunistic ways (14 interceptions and a plus-1.83 turnover margin leads the nation) to return to Chapel Hill on Saturday night with a 6-1 (2-1 ACC) record.

Virginia has won 15 of the last 20 meetings against UNC, including 13 straight at home, as the Cavs welcome the Tar Heels for the 113th contest in the South's oldest rivalry. But Davis indicated that this series' history belongs in the past.

"To these kids, it really doesn't make any difference," Davis said. "None of these guys were alive back in that period of time, and it's the next game on the schedule. It's a big game – it's an ACC game. And it's against a good football team."

It's interesting that Davis would make those remarks, considering it was North Carolina's 23-0 collapse at Virginia on Oct. 19, 2006 that started the ball rolling to bring him to Chapel Hill.

"I don't think we scored a point, and I don't think we played worth a [darn] on defense," senior linebacker Mark Paschal said when asked about the '06 game. "That was probably the lowest of the lows. National television. Coach [John] Bunting was fired shortly thereafter. Thursday night. It was embarrassing for us as players, embarrassing for the University, so it's something that has definitely stuck in my mind."

North Carolina is just one victory away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2004, and that team needed a season-ending victory over Duke to earn a trip to the Continental Tire Bowl. This group of Tar Heels is aiming just a little bit higher.


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