Both Renner and Withers had the tall task before them of following in the footsteps of great success, but Renner wanted to let his new coach know they were in this together.
“I think that’s what the team wanted to do, so I just wanted to let him know we had his back and whatever he needed, I was going to be there for him.”
A leader emerges
On Dec. 30, 2010, four-year starting quarterback T.J. Yates took his last snap as a Tar Heel in North Carolina’s 30-27 overtime win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
For the Tar Heels, the first bowl win in nine years was a reason for celebration. But for Renner, it was also his cue to get back to work.
He had spent his first two seasons at North Carolina in the shadow of Yates’ record-breaking college career. But on that December night, the torch was passed.
“I sent a text (to the team) just saying that we’re going to keep this going, and we’re going to do bigger things than the Music City Bowl,” Renner said. “I sent it to all the underclassmen and had a little meeting with them, just trying to get their mind right for this upcoming season.”
Renner might only have two pass-attempts to his name, but to those around him, he’s a seasoned veteran.
Renner didn’t get on the game field very often, but during his season as backup quarterback, he relished every practice rep he could get.
And Renner’s determination — even when nothing but his own growth was on the line — quickly caught Withers’ eye.
“I used to challenge Bryn every day when I was the defensive coordinator to go down there and light us up on the scout team,” Withers said. “Some of those guys would really, truly get upset with him because he would tear us up in practice. But he made us better. From that point, when I first had my association with Bryn, I said, ‘This is a special guy right here.’”
A last-minute change
Like Renner, Everett Withers had never been “the” guy.
For 24 years, the former Appalachian State defensive back had served in a variety of different coaching roles for multiple college and professional football teams, but he always had someone on the squads to answer to.
On July 28, all of that changed.
After spending three seasons as defensive coordinator for UNC, the opportunity for Withers to become a collegiate head coach fell in his lap when he was promoted to fill the interim position.
With just six weeks to spare until kickoff, Withers knew he had a lot to learn. And the defensive-minded coach knew just where to start.
“I spend a lot of time with (the offense), trying to get to know them and also encouraging them,” Withers said. “I’ve been on that other side for so long, that I feel comfortable now with what’s going on on the defense. I want those guys to know me a little bit better on the other side.”
But beyond learning the X’s and O’s, Withers faced the task of uniting a team that had just been blindsided by change.
Davis had been known as a player’s coach, and many of the North Carolina football team members were sad to see him go.
Davis brought in several top recruiting classes during his four-year career at UNC, and the veteran coach helped put North Carolina football back on the map.
But much to safety Matt Merletti’s delight — and surprise — the coaching transition was much smoother than he expected.
“He obviously has a way bigger role than he’s used to, and he’s done a much better job than I think anybody anticipated,” Merletti said.
In this together
As Renner took questions from reporters Monday after the first game-week press conference of the season, he sat comfortably on a chair in front of a plaque that read ‘Butch Davis, head football coach.’
But from Renner, there was no utterance about his former coach.
That was all behind him.
Instead, Renner’s Carolina blue eyes lit up as he talked about taking his first snap as a starting quarterback.
Saturday’s game against James Madison will be a big day for Renner, as he will finally get the opportunity to accomplish what he came to Chapel Hill to do.
But while Renner thinks about hitting his own milestone, the selfless new leader knows it’s not just his special day — it’s theirs.
“It’s going to be (Withers’) first game as a head coach, and my first game as a starting quarterback,” Renner said. “We’ve always gotten along well since I’ve been recruited here, and I think we just got closer just because we’re both in the same situation and looking forward to Saturday.
“I know he’s chomping at the bit for Saturday to kick off, and I know I am, too.”
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