As a wild and improbable 2010 UNC football season ended with a wild and improbable win in the Music City Bowl over Tennessee, it's time to take a look back at the Good, Bad, and Ugly of the 2010 season.
The year began with such promise, particularly after pretty much the entire defense decided to return rather than declare for the NFL draft. Heading into the summer, the question for Carolina would be whether or not the offense would be serviceable enough to not cripple one of the nation's top defenses. Then in an instant, Tar Heel football was turned on its head as the NCAA investigation and academic issues interrupted what was potentially a breakout season. Injuries further compounded the personnel attrition as the season wore on.
But UNC soldiered on, keeping the season on the tracks and playing well enough to win in nearly every game. There were some big wins over the course of the season - at Florida State, ending the Streak of Doom in Charlottesville - and some competitive losses. Carolina eked out 8 wins against a competitive schedule and with the significant loss of players due to academics, the NCAA, or injuries.
For our purposes here, however, the GBU will only consider what actually happened on the field and not all the drama off of it.
T.J. Yates: Probably the team's biggest question mark heading into the season, the senior quarterback will leave Chapel Hill with most of Carolina's quarterbacking records, and but for losing half a season to injury as a sophomore, might have had almost all of them. He could still make mind-baffling plays at times, but you can't argue with the 300- and 400-yard passing games and 8 wins this season.
Dwight Jones: Emerged as the team's leading receiver and one of the ACC's top big-play receivers.
Casey Barth: Overcame some early-season struggles to be money in the bank for UNC down the stretch.
Running back by committee: It is amazing that four different guys stepped up when called on to play running back. Top two returners out at the start of the season? No problem - Johnny White cranks out over 800 yards. White gets hurt? Don't worry - Anthony Elzy drops a hundred-yard game with ease. Elzy hurt? Miss the bowl game for academics? Boom. Shaun Draughn drops a C-note against Tennessee. Ryan Houston's redshirt in danger because there are no healthy backs? No worries - Hunter Freaking Furr leads the team to a win in Tallahassee. Simply amazing.
Quinton Coples: Asked to play out of position because of the NCAA unpleasantness on the defensive line, Coples had an all-ACC season.
Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick: Reddick, the unknown middle linebacker in between NFL prospects Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, might have had the best season of the three. And Brown, who saw lots of time with the injuries to Sturdivant and Carter, should be among the ACC's best next season.
Offensive line: One of the season's biggest disappointments given this group was supposed to be one of the season's most improved units. It's hard to imagine that, with a record-setting quarterback and a number of 100-yard running performances, that the O-line would be in the bad category, but the line was plagued by inconsistent play and Yates spent too much time either on his back or running for his life and many of the individual achievements of Yates or the RBs seemed to be in spite of the O-line, not because of it.
Senior defensive backs: All three senior defensive backs missed time because of the NCAA investigation and none of them ever seemed to find their stride. Da'Norris Searcy was held out three games for unspecified reasons and never named in any wrongdoing, and made an immediate impact in his return against ECU, but was pretty much a non-factor the rest of the season. Deunta Williams was held out for four games and Kendric Burney for seven, and neither ever returned to the form of their junior season, often seeming out of sync and blowing coverages.
Jhey Boyd and Erik Highsmith: After a 200-yard receiving game in the season-opener against LSU, Boyd barely scratched 200 yards in the remaining 12 games. And after flashes of brilliance in his freshman season, Highsmith was a complete non-factor this year. Granted, Dwight Jones got the lion's share of throws, but the combination of Jones, Boyd, and Highsmith should have been one of the best in the ACC, but only Jones lived up to that expectation.
Kick coverage teams: Simply atrocious. The special teams looked shaky early, but it was supposed to be because of all the missing players, since UNC generally uses first-line players on special teams. Only the special teams, both on kickoffs and punts, never really got any better and eventually cost Carolina at least one game against NCSU.
Punting: How bad was Grant Shallock punting to be replaced by C.J. Feagles, who barely averaged 36 yards per kick? It was an adventure every time the Heels punted and there was added pressure on the defense given the short field changes. In Feagles' defense, however, his net punting was better, but not much.
Injuries: As if the self-inflicted wounds were not enough, injuries claimed even more games from UNC, including season-ending injuries to key offensive players Johnny White and Zack Pianalto.
Ultimately, however, Carolina averted what could have been disaster and ground out a 3rd-straight 8-win season, as well as a bowl win for the first time in nearly a decade. While there is the disappointment of what might have been, there is plenty to be celebrated. UNC will have a solid core of returning players on both sides of the ball and celebrated recruits coming in that should give optimism for 2011.