They'd been on campus for just a few months, but North Carolina's freshmen felt the sting of a 1-5 start as deeply as anyone. It was a tight-knit group from the outset, and they'd hoped to be contributing more. Instead, the Tar Heels stumbled early, and the freshmen had made little impact.
Things finally began to change by mid-October, though. The freshmen held an impromptu meeting, vowing to make the most of their chances -- no matter how rare those opportunities might be.
That week, tailback T.J. Logan got a season-high 16 carries in a loss to Miami, and suddenly the door swung open for a wave of freshmen to make their mark.
It was a turning point in the season, freshman receiver Ryan Switzer said.
"The coaches finally gave us an opportunity," Switzer said. "It was a big turning point for us, confidence-wise. The young guys just talked amongst ourselves and knew we could help this team win and took it upon our shoulders to do our part. Once we started playing, I think our production helped flip the season around."
Logan was solid all season, finishing the regular season with his two best games of the year. Brian Walker had a pick and defended seven passes. Dominique Green finished the regular season with 56 tackles and three interceptions.
But it was Switzer who served as the Tar Heels' biggest breakout star. After a slow start to the season, Switzer blossomed down the stretch, compiling 544 total yards and six touchdowns in his final four games.
In September, Switzer wondered when he'd get his chance to shine. By December, he was North Carolina's first freshman All-American in 36 years.
"I took a little bit longer than I thought adjusting to the speed and different aspects to the game," said Switzer, whose 419 yards and four TDs earned him first team All-America status as a punt returner. "When I started just playing and relaxing, things started coming to me."
Taking a deep breath, relaxing and enjoying the ride wasn't only what Switzer needed to salvage his season. It worked for the entire team.
After the late loss to Miami, the Tar Heels rebounded to win five straight games and capture a bowl bid that once seemed utterly out of reach. Switzer and the influx of energy from the true freshmen were a big reason for the rejuvenation.
"We knew that we were going to break through at some point," Switzer said. "I think when we started just relaxing and having fun playing the game again, that's when we were at our best. That's one of the big keys to success that we had -- especially our young underclassmen."
Switzer and the rest of the Tar Heels have one final chance to put their stamp on the season Saturday when they play Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in nearby Charlotte (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN).
To end the year with a winning record and send the seniors out on a high note has become the primary goal for Switzer and the young Tar Heels.
"If we can get a win against a nine-win Cincinnati team in our backyard in front of our home crowd, that'd be real nice," said Switzer, whose UNC team has just one bowl victory since 2001. "It would help us in recruiting, help us in a lot of things. We're working hard right now to prepare. We'll see what we can do on the 28th."
But while ending this season strong is the immediate goal, getting a jump start on 2014 is big, too. After treading water for six weeks this year, Switzer and the rest of North Carolina's young guns want to hit the ground running next season. And after racking up All-America honors as a freshman, Switzer knows the expectations will only get bigger.
"The expectations are high now -- for me and this team -- for next year," Switzer said. "It's our job, it's my job, to prepare accordingly. I'm not going to take teams by surprise anymore. And if I want to get to the next level I've got to continue to produce and get better."