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December 24, 2011North Carolina's football team is in a unique time and place this weekend as it prepares for Monday's Advocare 100 Independence Bowl.
The Tar Heel coaches, players, and staff members are spending this year's Holiday in Shreveport (La.), as UNC gets ready to take on Missouri the day after Christmas.
The Tar Heels have scheduled 'game week' practice sessions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as they prepare for the Tigers---providing a unique Holiday experience this year for the UNC players.
"It's a little different than what it was last year, because last year (getting ready for the Music City Bowl) we practiced up into Christmas, went home for a break, and then came back," said sophomore defensive end Kareem Martin. "This time we're practicing through Christmas. It will be a little different, not being home for Christmas, but you've got to do what you've got to do."
"It's definitely an exciting time. Just the more time with our players," added redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard.
Bernard, UNC's first 1,000-yard running back in 13 seasons, says he hasn't seen a noticeable change within the team in recent practices in light of the fact that almost all of the current coaching regime is leaving.
He added that the extra workouts this month after fall semester exams have been helpful for the Tar Heels to get back on track and hone in on Missouri.
"I don't think it's really too much of a change going on right now (with the players)," Bernard said. "I think guys are just really worried about this upcoming game. And that's the main thing you've got to do is kind of keep that outside stuff away really, and really just be prepared for this upcoming game against Missouri."
"These additional practices together give us more time to hang around each other, be funny around each other, and do whatever around each other. And that's the main thing, just being around football players and guys and friends," Bernard continued.
"I think as a group we've gone through a lot. And I think we've felt that we've become a real big family. Even though the family may be a little bit separated after the season---whatever may happen---I think we're still in that family mode right now."
"Going into game week and preparation for this bowl game, we've definitely stayed close, like throughout the season. We're just getting prepared for Missouri."
It's a particularly exciting period of time for Bernard knowing he's actually going to get to play in the bowl game this year after having to sit out UNC's triumph over Tennessee last December in Nashville as he recovered from a preseason knee injury.
"This is my real first bowl experience, kind of going through practice. Last year I went to the bowl but I wasn't really worried about practice. I wasn't really doing anything," he said.
UNC sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner has liked the intensity the Tar Heels brought to practice this past week leading up to their departure for Shreveport.
"I think it (the energy in practice) has been awesome. It's kind of a good relief to come out here and practice and really get away from exams studying (for exams) and then taking the tests," Renner said.
"Anytime you can just come out here and just have a lot of fun, I think that's the biggest thing. We've been having these last couple of practices a lot of fun."
Renner agreed with Bernard's sentiments that the younger players aren't worrying about the future under Larry Fedora---at least for this one game.
"We want to finish the season out strong. So all I'm focused on right now is playing this game. That's what Coach Fedora said---to focus on getting this win, and then we'll head into the offseason. We can handle the offseason when the offseason comes," Renner said.
It's a unique Holiday situation for Renner and the rest of the Tar Heels, but he's fortunate in that several members of his family are making the trek to Northwest Louisiana to celebrate the Christmas season and view the Independence Bowl.
"My grandparents and my mom and dad will be down there," he said.
Renner is one of several UNC players who will have family in Shreveport.
"I think several guys are going to have their families down there. I don't know how many, but I'm sure it's several guys," said outgoing UNC head coach Everett Withers.
Withers, like the players we spoke with, also feels like the team has not been distracted by the coaching transition as they've gotten ready for Missouri.
"I don't think so (that they've been distracted)," he said. "I think kids, once they get out here on the grass, it doesn't make a difference. Just prepare for a game, get ready to play a game and win a game."
"I think it (our preparation) has been great. I think the kids, coaches, everybody has handled it (the coaching transition) very well," Withers added.
Withers and the Tar Heel coaches have naturally had to fit in a lot of football since the team arrived in Louisiana on Thursday, but Withers is looking forward to enjoying his last couple of days as UNC's head coach with a team dinner on Christmas, followed by the ball game Monday.
"We'll do some football obviously---we've got a practice---but we'll have a big Christmas dinner there in Shreveport," Withers said. "They've got a whole host of activities for the team. It will be fun. It will be a fun trip for the kids."
"I know we're having a team dinner Christmas day. So our focus will also be on our teammates (in addition to family)," said Renner. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun just being around the team and things of that nature."
In addition to the dinner on Christmas, the Tar Heel players will also likely enjoy some entertainment, which might include a movie.
"We'll probably go out, take the kids out. We've got a whole day. I'd like to see one of the movies out. I'd like to see (the new) 'Mission Impossible' (Ghost Protocol movie)," Withers said.
After nearly a month without a ball game, there's been almost a training camp mentality to these last practice sessions for UNC from the standpoint that they're ready to finally hit somebody else again.
"You kind of get excited. You just get to the point when you're ready to play somebody else," said junior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. "We'll be ready to play---I know that."
"Obviously I've played 12 games of Division I football, and I've been ready for every one. I feel like the team has been ready for every one, and I feel like I have been ready for every one," Williams added.
"I'm looking forward to playing the game. We're going to play as hard as we can play to win the ball game," said Withers.
While certainly Shreveport wasn't an ideal Christmas destination for North Carolina's fans---and only a select die-hard few are making the trek to the game---the UNC players and coaches are making the most of the situation with one ultimate goal in mind.
"What do I want for Christmas? I'd like to win a bowl game. I'd like to be 8-5 at the end of this thing," said Withers. "I think these kids, they've been through an awful lot. I think they'll be excited about playing in this bowl game and moving forward."
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