As a result of an ongoing two-pronged investigation into UNC's football program regarding agent-player relations and academic improprieties, 13 players were held out of Saturday night's 30-24 loss to LSU in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
In practices leading up to the season opener, several starters had been practicing on the scout team to prepare the reserves for an unexpected increase in playing time for the marquee matchup with LSU.
Preseason All-American linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, who had been practicing with the scout team as the academic investigation sought more information from several players, were officially cleared of any wrong-doings by both the University and the NCAA.
The best news Tar Heel fans had received in over a month was quickly jeopardized by reports that the two linebackers were neither on the team bus to the airport nor the team plane to Atlanta.
With a game of this magnitude one day away, the two boarded a private jet to Atlanta and met up with the team Friday evening.
As news spread via Internet message boards that Carter and Sturdivant had rejoined the team, Carolina fans were giddy with the prospects of seeing two of the most important defensive players returning to the line-up.
But when the Tar Heel defense took the field for the first time after a Johnny White fumble gave LSU the ball on the Carolina 35-yard line just 20 seconds into the game, both Carter and Sturdivant were playing the role of spectators on the sidelines (though Sturdivant was on opening kickoff coverage).
A missed field goal by LSU and a prompt second Tar Heel fumble, this time on a botched snap, and the Carolina defense once again took the field without Nos. 52 and 54.
While both linebackers started playing on the third series after LSU took a 7-0 lead, they were continually subbed in and out throughout the game, often one for the other.
The two linebackers recovered crucial fumbles for the Tar Heels, while Sturdivant led the defense with eight tackles and Carter's bone-jarring hit on Russell Shepard on a third-down play in the first quarter initiated the first raucous "Bruuuuuuuuuce" chant from the Tar Heel faithful this season.
The platooning at linebacker was not something UNC fans were expecting when word got out that the stars of the corp were in fact eligible, but in retrospect it seems as if head coach Butch Davis sending the message that there is not a position on the Carolina squad that is set in stone.
Let's take a look at the conflicting rationales regarding the splitting up of playing time at linebacker during the loss to LSU.
They Were Innocent the Entire Time, They Should Have Played the Whole Game
This was the assumption of many Tar Heel fans once Carter and Sturdivant were deemed eligible, at least among the knowledgeable fans with whom I was tailgating.
Seeing as how cautious the Carolina administration has been in terms of letting a player suit up as to avoid a possible vacating of wins, Carter and Sturdivant had to have been explicitly innocent if they were the first players in question to be cleared.
The fact that they had been on the scout team for over a week should have been null and void, considering they were never in the wrong in the first place and had been incorrectly implicated in the allegations.
True, UNC's main objective this season is to win the ACC. But in a nationally televised game against a ranked SEC opponent, you put your best players on the field and let them do what they do best as they'll give you the best chance to win.
Ready for the Devil's advocate? You better be, he prevailed on this Saturday night...
The Second-Stringers Are Most Prepared for LSU, and They Will Start at Linebacker
Zach Brown and Herman Davidson, one being one of the fastest Tar Heels and the other a converted safety who is extremely aggressive when he hits, had been preparing all week to start this game, so that's how we're going out there.
Brown and Davidson, who have played significant minutes in previous seasons, had been the linebackers all throughout the game-plan leading up to Saturday night's game.
It would not have been fair to put them back on the second-string just because the two stars hopped on a jet to Atlanta just in the nick of time.
Going Forward from Here
So while Carter and Sturdivant both played enough downs to leave their impacts on the game, Carolina fans were left wishing the two All-American candidates had been on the field just a few more plays.
Might Sturdivant have disrupted the six-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Jefferson to Shepard in the first quarter to give the Tigers an early lead?
Would Carter have caught Shepard on his 50-yard touchdown run in the second quarter? The one where Shepard went untouched through a hole vacated by sophomore linebacker Shane Mularkey?
In both cases, we'll never know.
Carolina will now have a bye week before taking on Georgia Tech on Sept. 18 in Chapel Hill. It is likely that Carter and Sturdivant will return to the starting lineup for that game, especially given the vastly different defensive preparation needed for the Yellow Jackets' triple-option.
However, this weekend showed that Davis is not afraid to give his reserves meaningful minutes. Heck, walk-on defensive back Peter Mangum found himself inserted on the nickel package and was matching up with Tiger wide receivers as late as the fourth quarter.
After scooping up a Stevan Ridley fumble in the waning minutes of the game to give the Tar Heels one last fighting chance for a miracle comeback, Sturdivant returned to the aluminum bench where he started the game. Carter joined him just seconds later.
As they sat and enjoyed the calamity that ensued on Carolina's final drive, which came up a mere six yards short in the final seconds, the two linebackers had to have taken solace in the fact that they did about as much as they could have done.
Though the whirlwind of investigations surrounding the Tar Heels program unnecessarily swept them up and caused them to miss several plays on Saturday night, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant must have been thankful to have even been suited up.
They must have also realized that their starting positions are now theirs to take, not theirs to lose. However, given the impact both players had against the Tigers, Carolina fans should be prepared to see Nos. 52 and 54 wreaking havoc from the opening kickoff when the Yellow Jackets come to town.