CHAPEL HILL — The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability.
If the 2008 season had been scripted — if preseason publications and pundit predictions had played out as anticipated — imagine what we might have missed out on:
ACC punchline Duke racing out to a 3-1 start under new leader David Cutcliffe.
Clemson losing three times before Halloween and firing coach Tommy Bowden at midseason.
North Carolina quarterback Cam Sexton, a third-team afterthought in August, emerging as an unlikely leader in Chapel Hill, the composed offensive general of a team that’s still pursuing a 10-win season.
Certainly, Sexton would love to have back the last pass he threw in a 17-15 loss at Maryland on Nov. 15, an interception that pretty much ended UNC’s chances of playing for the conference title in Tampa. But that should not diminish the surprising comeback season he has put together, against all odds.
Tell the truth. How many times did you read Sexton’s name anywhere in August? How many folks ever would have imagined the once-benched and demoralized QB suddenly taking center stage in a Carolina gridiron resurgence?
Back in the summer, who outside of the Sexton family would have envisioned him leading a last-minute touchdown drive at Miami, or scoring the game-winning TD against one of college football’s legendary programs in Notre Dame, or helping to engineer a 38-12 blowout of then-No. 22 Connecticut?
In what has been mostly a feel-good season for the Heels, Sexton arguably has had the most to feel good about. Back in spring ball and into fall training camp, he was a total nonentity in UNC’s plans — third on the depth chart, and often discouraged with the downward arc of his career.
Now Sexton has redeemed himself. He isn’t a great player; his problems at Virginia and Maryland hurt the Heels in crucial losses. But he always prepares well, he always plays hard, and he makes it a priority to pay attention to details.
“The best lesson any young football player could learn is watching the way Cam Sexton has handled the last 18 months,” Carolina coach Butch Davis said. “With all that he’s been through, he never backed down, never stopped watching film or going to practice. Whatever reps he got, he took advantage of them.”
Sexton’s first stint as a UNC starter, during his redshirt freshman season, was less than spectacular. He completed just 41.9 percent of his passes during the 2006 season, for 840 yards, four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
For a while, it appeared as if that would be the extent of Sexton’s impact on the program. In the spring of 2007, redshirt freshman T.J. Yates became Davis’ top gun and could have held down the starting spot until long after Sexton had graduated. Things seemed hopeless.
Here’s how the frustration of a once-promising career on a detour unfolded:
Sexton’s parents, Patti and Brent, changed their seats at Kenan Stadium, just to get away from the criticism they’d hear.
His high school coach, Mark Barnes at Scotland County High in North Carolina, urged Sexton to transfer, to find a new program where he’d be appreciated more and his skills could be utilized on game days.
Even Sexton himself couldn’t swim to the surface, his mind hitting rock bottom with negative thoughts he couldn’t erase.
“Where do I go from here?” Sexton remembers asking himself. “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to get here?”
Always a confident and energetic player, Sexton suddenly had the biggest doubts of all.
“I remember telling my dad after leaving practice one day, ‘Dad, I feel like my dreams are kind of falling apart around me,’” Sexton said. “This is what I’ve always done. This is what I’ve always dreamed of doing — playing football. And for the first time, I started questioning, ‘Is this what I want to do? Is this what I’m meant to do?’”
Then, suddenly, it happened. An ankle injury to Yates on Sept. 20 moved Sexton one step closer to the field. When redshirt freshman Mike Paulus failed to take advantage of his opportunity, looking overwhelmed in relief of Yates in the Virginia Tech loss and less than steady the following week at Miami, Sexton rolled back into the spotlight with a nothing-to-lose attitude that has come to typify UNC’s season.
Sexton’s 55.6 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes through seven games weren’t the kinds of stats that get statues built outside the stadium. But they did represent a measure of resiliency and desire that has Carolina football again pointed in the right direction.
Lawson Mailed In Opener:
Less than 90 minutes before the tipoff of No. 1 North Carolina’s basketball opener, Ty Lawson zipped into the Smith Center parking lot on a moped, clearly behind schedule for the day. Four hours later, he was noticeably absent from UNC’s postgame player interviews.
In between, the junior point guard put together a misleading stat line of 12 points, five assists and two turnovers in an 86-71 win over Penn. In truth, he had been about as impressive as injured seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Ginyard, who both watched the victory from the bench, wearing suits.
UNC fans can only hope that Lawson’s opening-night showing wasn’t a symbolic foreshadowing for the entire winter. Because if the Tar Heels are to make good on their national championship pursuit, they’re going to need a tougher, more focused and — most importantly — more dependable Lawson on the floor.
A year ago, despite averaging 12.7 points and 5.2 assists per game and helping UNC win 36 games and reach the Final Four, Lawson did not win the unquestioned confidence of his coaches and teammates. He missed six games in the heart of the ACC schedule with a sprained ankle that lingered far too long, while leaders such as Ginyard and Hansbrough played through their own pains.
In UNC’s season-ending loss to Kansas at the Final Four, Lawson did not show the take-charge attitude that might have helped rescue the Heels from the first-half blitzkrieg the Jayhawks uncorked.
Within the program, Lawson at times has been stamped with the prima donna label, too often slowed by minor bumps and bruises. And while coach Roy Williams raved about the impressive preseason his junior point guard supposedly had, Lawson’s maturity issues remain a concern.
Realistically, it would take a miracle at this point for Lawson to suddenly develop the competitive tenacity and galvanizing leadership skills of legendary UNC point guard Phil Ford, or even national championship floor generals such as Jimmy Black (1982), Derrick Phelps (1993) or Raymond Felton (2005).
But that doesn’t mean Lawson can’t be a big-time difference-maker. And if the Tar Heels are to cut down the nets in Detroit next April, they’ll need their speedy point guard to supplement his statistical production with more toughness, more focus and more dependability.