That’s all North Carolina’s players could say, and it’s all they needed to say.
After all, there’s no way to rationalize injuries. Linebacker Andre Smith, wide receiver Thomas Jackson and offensive tackle William Sweet — all starters — cannot explain why that one cut or bad landing ended up costing them the rest of this season.
On Thursday’s injury report, they were three of nine players UNC listed as out for the year after a season just three games old. Ten more players were listed as questionable, doubtful or out as North Carolina entered its earliest game against Duke in school history.
So, the Tar Heels did their best to adjust. With Smith out, Cole Holcomb and Jonathan Smith spent a second straight week taking reps at the starting middle linebacker spot. Jackson’s absence meant even more targets for Austin Proehl and an increased role for Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The offensive line, which hadn’t started the same five players in a game yet, prepared for another week of the same.
And about three hours after Saturday’s kickoff, a bleak situation got even bleaker. The 27-17 loss to Duke frustrated the team enough. But three more in-game injuries — and the way they happened — added salt to the wound.
“It does hurt,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “But our mantra is next man up. That's the sport we play.”
In the first quarter, UNC ran a shotgun flea flicker almost identical to the one that burned Duke for a touchdown in 2015. It hurt the Blue Devils this time, too, as quarterback Chazz Surratt connected with Proehl for 47 yards. The wide receiver was tackled from behind at Duke’s 31-yard line.
His landing after the play didn’t seem odd until a few seconds later. Proehl shot up after being tackled and looked ready to celebrate with the roaring crowd. But instead, he paused before jogging to the sideline.