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April 1, 2011

Fast-forward

Carolina did not enter the 2010 football season intending to fast-forward anything about its year.

UNC planned to live for the moment. The roster was littered with potential National Football League draft choices, some almost sure first-rounders. "Wait 'till next year" did not even cross the Tar Heels' minds.

Then suspensions, permanent loss of eligibility and injuries dumped an experienced roster into a barrel, rolled it around and spilled an entirely different mixture onto the field.

Now as it turns out, all of the adversity accelerated the program by forcing unknown players into action before what would have been their time normally. So as the Tar Heels work their way through spring practice with the 2011 season on their minds, the word "rebuilding" is not a part of their vocabulary.

"This is not a rebuilding year," linebacker Zach Brown said. "We're just going to keep it moving. We're going to make it to a BCS bowl or we're going to be disappointed. We're going to win the ACC."

Knowledge, unity and experience are qualities that will make a difference this fall, Brown said.

"We all got a lot closer," Brown said. "Without the superstars, everyone was stepping up and playing their roles. A lot of people got smarter. Nobody is really a rookie.

By year's end, what the Tar Heels accomplished seemed like a magic act. They turned potential disaster into an 8-5 finish with a double-overtime 30-27 victory against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

Now the players who put on their uniforms each day this spring have extraordinary faith in one another. They proved to themselves they can overcome.

"It's tremendous," starting left offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said. "There are guys who never would have gotten an opportunity to play, like some of the DBs, some of the defensive ends, guys who probably would have redshirted and wouldn't have a chance to play. Now we plug them right back in and they know what they're doing.

"They not only have the knowledge, but they have the game experience."

Best of all, their faith and confidence is rooted in the reality of hard-earned successes.

"There is a mentality that we know we can do it if we put our minds together to defeat adversity," Cooper said. "We did that with a team that was depleted with great players. So what can we do when we have everybody that we're supposed to?"

Junior offensive tackle Brennan Williams said as hard as last season may have been, now the team can see blessings are born of perseverance.

"What happened was that we might not have been as good as we were supposed to be last year," Williams said, "but I think we're stronger as a team going into the future. Whether it was for the NCAA or injuries, we had a lot of guys who wouldn't have played last year who got to play. That will make us better going into this year."

Of course, experience alone is not enough. As basketball coach Roy Williams often says, coaches want talented experience, not just experience. The Tar Heels have it.

Quinton Coples has moved back to his natural position at defensive end after spending last season filling in at defensive tackle. With Donte Paige-Moss at the other defensive end, the Tar Heels have two of the best pass rushers in the country.

"It's great," Coples said of moving back outside. "It's definitely been great. I don't have to take all those double teams. It frees me up more. My body feels better."

Coples expects to find a way to top his performance of a year ago.

"I hold myself to a lot higher expectations than last year," Coples said. "Last year I was just trying to step up and be the anchor for the team. Overall my expectations for myself are higher than anyone else can have for me."

He envisions what he wants to accomplish this fall.

"I'm playing a sack-mental game, throughout all of spring ball and forward," Coples said, smiling. "I'm sack-minded right now."


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