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UNC Football: A farewell to the 2016 seniors

Larry Fedora’s first recruiting class just played their last game at Kenan Stadium.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Larry Fedora promised Tar Heel fans in his first press conference as UNC’s football coach that he’d be bringing a new, offensive-minded philosophy to Carolina football. He told us:

As a football team, we will always be attacking. Carolina style football will be known as playing smart, playing fast and playing physical.

Now we can quibble about how much Fedora has adhered to these words in his years coaching, especially with the Tar Heel defense’s well-documented struggles. These words and this sentiment, though, was totally reflected in the players that Fedora immediately set out to recruit once he got to Chapel Hill.

Des Lawrence. M.J. Stewart. Bug Howard. Ryan Switzer. T.J. Logan. Mack Hollins. Dominiquie Green. Mikey Bart. Nick Weiler. Jon Heck. Lucas Crowley. Caleb Peterson. These twelve have been positive game-changers during their careers at Carolina, whether they started dominating the league immediately or took a few years to adjust. The offensive “skill position” players in the list are explosive, the secondary players are physical, and the line players are mean. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing all of their names on Carolina broadcasts, and more often than not, it’s been in a positive light.

But a team can’t get by just with playmakers, and this class consists of glue guys, too. Khris Francis, Dan Mastromatteo, John Ferranto, and Joey Mangili haven’t earned quite the acclaim of the preceding group, but they have made valuable contributions to the team, whether it be on special teams coverage, valuable backup duty, or, in Mangili’s case, helping a newcomer to the United States acclimate to the country and to the sport after losing his starting job. They have done everything asked of them to help this team succeed.

It’s also important to note the climate under which these players committed to UNC. We’ve all heard, read, and experienced enough about the scandal, so suffice it to say that UNC was a hard sell to high school recruits in 2012. The guys that Fedora brought in, much like the most recent UNC basketball graduating class, bought into the program knowing the scrutiny that they would face, the baseless insults that would be thrown their way, and that the program would be on probation for at least two more years. They came anyway and did everything they could, getting UNC to a postseason game and then dominating Cincinnati in the 2013 Belk Bowl. They continued to weather this storm for us their entire time here, and they deserve immense gratitude.

More than anything else, though, with the kind of offense that Fedora wanted to install at UNC, he wanted to make Tar Heels football fun. And these players have been exactly that: Whether the team has been mediocre or legitimately great, it has always been fun to watch because of the culture Fedora has cultivated and the players he has recruited. We’re not soon going to forget Ryan Switzer’s NCAA record-tying freshman year, or Mack Hollins’ nation-leading junior season, or T.J Logan’s sudden immense kickoff prowess this year, or Nick Weiler revealing the ability to hit game-winning 54-yard field goals after never attempting one from past 50 in a game.

For much of my childhood, UNC football wasn’t awful but such memories were rare. Giovani Bernard’s punt return was the start of it, but Fedora’s classes have continued making these moments almost commonplace. These seniors have helped make Carolina football exciting every week, and it’s been a joy to watch them.

And finally, this class has sentimental value to me, as I finish my undergraduate career at UNC alongside them. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this subject near the end of basketball season, as graduation rolls around. For now, let me just say that I find a lot more joy in college football now than I did when I entered college, and that is in large part due to Fedora and his recruiting classes making it entertaining and starting to build a winning program. The late-season disappointments in 2016 notwithstanding, this senior class has certainly given us reason to be optimistic about the future of Carolina football, and that was sorely lacking back in 2012. That fighting spirit is something I will definitely take away from my time at UNC.

Ryan Switzer shared a letter with Carolina fans on Saturday, thanking us for our continued support through what he describes as a turbulent career. And I’m sure he’s frustrated us at times, but he’s leaving as Carolina’s all-time leading pass catcher and leader in punt return touchdowns. We have much more to thank him and his classmates for than the other way around.

So, to every player named above, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for your support of UNC, thanks for your excellence on the field and your presence off it, and thanks, above all, for the memories. Whatever you go pro in, I know you’ll do great things.