Donnie Miles sat on the field and slapped the grass with his left hand.
After crashing into one of his teammates the end of the third quarter on Saturday, the senior safety left during the game with an injury as North Carolina lost 33-10 to Notre Dame. He was one of six players to visit the UNC injury tent propped up on the sideline — including junior linebacker Cole Holcomb, senior offensive lineman R.J. Prince, sophomore punter Tom Sheldon, sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams and sophomore cornerback K.J. Sails.
Everyone except Sheldon and Miles returned to the game. They didn’t have much of a choice. UNC’s roster has been essentially depleted from injuries — including the loss of three wide receivers, senior linebacker Andre Smith, defensive tackle Tyler Powell and several offensive linemen.
With Smith out for the season, Holcomb has taken over directing the defense at middle linebacker. Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Smith filled that role when Holcomb came out of the game on Saturday. But with the loss of so many leaders, keeping Holcomb sidelined was a luxury UNC (1-5, 0-4 ACC) could not afford.
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Like many of his teammates, he played through injuries on Saturday. When Holcomb sat down in the media room after the game, he had a circular red bruise over his right shoulder. He got cupping therapy on Thursday to remedy pain in his shoulder.
“Guys who can play through injuries, that shows me that they want to be on the field, want to make plays,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “So it inspires me more to play better.”
But the weight healthy players must bear in the wake of so many injuries is taking its toll. North Carolina already entered this season with adversity from exceptional inexperience, particularly on offense. The injury plague only escalates the pressure for an already young team.
North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb talks about the Tar Heels loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Kenan Field in Chapel Hill, NC Saturday, October 7, 2017.Jonas Pope email@example.com
With a battered offensive line and the loss of his most stable receiving targets — including senior receiver Austin Proehl, senior receiver Thomas Jackson and sophomore Rontavius Groves — redshirt-freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt is facing greater adversity in his first year as a starter. In the first three games of the season, Surratt did not throw any interceptions. But with a depleted receiving corps, he’s thrown one in each of the past three games.
The offense ended the game with 265 yards — the lowest total at home this season. And the defense allowed Notre Dame (5-1) 487 yards, including three plays with gains of 50 or more yards.
By the time the game finished, most of the fans had trickled out of Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels trudged off the field with sullen expressions. Even head coach Larry Fedora was at a loss for words over what went wrong.
Still, despite the lost players and opportunities, UNC’s leaders have continued to proclaim positivity. The defenders have learned to celebrate big plays and gain confidence in the improvements they’ve made since the season’s start. And on the sidelines, players remind each other to stay upbeat.
“We can’t afford to let these guys start thinking negatively,” Holcomb said. “So when people start talking negatively, we’ve got to cut them out.”
That’s what the Tar Heels tried to do after Miles went down in the third quarter. As Miles trudged off the field — in between two athletic trainers in blue baseball caps — a stream of players jogged up to him and gingerly patted his helmet and shoulders. But Miles didn’t pay much attention to them.
He just ripped off his helmet and gritted his teeth.