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Pitt opponent North Carolina getting back to business of playing football

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North Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott has struggled in place of suspended starter Chazz Surratt.

While Hurricane Florence moved last week toward the shores of North Carolina, Larry Fedora’s football players packed up and went home. It was Wednesday, normally an important day of game preparation, but there was nothing to prepare for, other than getting somewhere safe.

North Carolina’s home game against Central Florida, which in the preseason looked like an important measuring stick, was canceled.

For three days, Fedora had almost no contact with his players — an unheard of development during any football season.

Yet, there is good news on the Chapel Hill campus this week as the Tar Heels prepare to play Pitt on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

“All families are accounted for. All players are accounted for,” Fedora said. “Some of their families have not been able to get back home yet because of the flooding that’s still going on. But everybody is safe, and everybody is OK.

“Sunday, guys started getting back on campus. By Monday morning, we had everybody back.”

Meanwhile, Fedora said every player is donating their per diem money from Saturday’s game toward buying supplies that will be shipped, along with donations from the community, to the eastern part of the state.

“Our players wanted to do something,” Fedora said, adding the team’s equipment truck was two-thirds full of supplies by Wednesday.

Now, the Tar Heels (0-2), who haven’t played since losing to East Carolina, 41-19, on Sept. 8, can get back to playing football.

“Hopefully, there will be some people that will be able to take their mind off the pain and suffering they’ve been going through and enjoy coming out and watching a football game,” said Fedora, who’s been the team’s coach since 2012. “I think it’s important for everybody to have some normalcy. There’s a lot of people that want to get back home, can’t get back home because of the flooding, really have nothing to do. We’ve had quite a few people come to practice … just looking for something to do.”

Even before the hurricane, the challenges Fedora was forced to confront started in July at ACC Media Days in Charlotte. There, he made some controversial remarks about football’s place in society, including saying it’s not been proven that the sport causes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

“Our game is under attack,” he said in July. “I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”

He added, “The game is safer than it’s ever been.”

During the ACC coaches weekly conference Wednesday, Fedora was asked about the impact of those remarks.

“We’ve had many people that have expressed their opinions on the matter, both for and against,” he said. “But I probably didn’t do a very good job of expressing myself at the Media Days. I think I’ve addressed it since then. I know that the health and safety of our players is of the utmost importance, always has been, always will be. We support all the research that’s being done.”

Then, in August, North Carolina suspended 13 players for part of this season for selling school-issued sneakers for up to $2,500 in cash. Nine of the 13 were suspended for four games, including quarterback Chazz Surratt, who threw for 1,342 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman.

In two road losses, Surratt’s replacement, junior Nathan Elliott, has completed barely half of his passes (37 of 73) for 356 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions.

“We knew that those guys were going to be out for those games, so we made the adjustments that we felt like we needed to make,” Fedora said. “It doesn’t necessarily always mean that you may have somebody in a position that has the same talent level. So you had to adjust some of the things you’ve done.

“We have a ways to go on both sides of the ball. We’ve only had the opportunity to play two games. We’re still learning a lot about this football team.”

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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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