Heels Keeping Their Focus

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When the news broke last Thursday that the NCAA's investigation of North Carolina had extended into academic misconduct, the season opener against LSU seemed to be the furthest thing from UNC fans' minds. But that hasn't been the case for the Tar Heel players.

The players' focus has been a topic of conversation recently, and for good reason – what was once considered the program's most highly-anticipated season opener in modern history has become an afterthought for fans and media members. Message boards, radio shows and print media have been overrun with opinions and conspiracy theories. Soccer moms have even gotten into the discussion at local daycares and coffee shops.

But regardless of what news comes out this week, if any, North Carolina will still have to suit up to play against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Saturday night in Atlanta. While a cloud of uncertainty may have settled over Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are keeping their eyes forward instead of losing themselves looking above.

"It can be very distracting if you let it," senior tight end Zack Pianalto told reporters during North Carolina's weekly press conference on Monday. "If you sit here and read all of the newspapers and hear all of the speculation about who's playing and who's not playing, who's in trouble and who's not, you can get carried away."

One of the reasons that the Tar Heels are able to focus on the task at hand is because they are in the dark almost as much as the fan base and media. Pianalto indicated that the players haven't heard about who will be available against LSU and that the players don't even really know who's involved.

When asked about the infamous scout team reports, Pianalto would only say that "things are changing daily as new information comes out on all of this."

If this NCAA investigation had occurred with North Carolina's '07 roster, complete with multiple freshmen starters and very little resemblance of a senior class, then the program may have been on the brink of falling apart. But this veteran squad has endured plenty of adversity – albeit nothing quite like this – and has been able to stick together as the season approaches.

"The guys on this team do a great job of once we get on the football field and start practicing, we're completely focused on football and nothing else," senior quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We don't let the outside stuff that could potentially hurt us get to us during practice and during our film study."

But while Yates was willing to say earlier this month that the first prong of the NCAA investigation news helped to unify this football team, he's unsure about how the recent news that UNC is looking into academic misconduct will affect the team.

"It's a little more difficult with this stuff coming out just a week before we go into the games," Yates said. "There are a lot of question marks. Nobody really knows what's going to happen, but we know no matter what, we've got to go out there and perform. We've just got to control the things that we can control."

One of the tragedies of this situation is that the large majority of North Carolina's roster has not been implicated in any wrong doing, but the harsh spotlight has been wide in scope. If there was ever a legitimate reason for dissension in the ranks, this NCAA investigation would provide that opportunity, but that hasn't been the case within the walls of the Kenan Football Center.

"You can't really be mad – there's not enough time in the day to be mad," Pianalto said. "We have so much prep going in, so many things that we need to focus on about LSU. If you let that kind of stuff worry you, then you'll drown away in it. So just being able to refocus every day and say, ‘Okay, here's what I've got to get done today. We've got to go out and have a good practice. We've got to watch film, we've got to study and we've got to be a better team at the end of the day."

If there can be a silver lining to this two-pronged review in Chapel Hill, it's that the outside expectations have fallen significantly. The Tar Heels went from a slight favorite over the Tigers to an underdog before the game was pulled off the board in Vegas in light of Thursday's news.

Though North Carolina's expectations haven't changed at all, and if the Tar Heels are somehow able to keep their focus to rise above the controversy and pull out an improbable victory over LSU on Saturday night, the healing process may actually begin before the NCAA issues its final report.

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