Just two years ago, Nick Weiler was getting booed on his home field.
Saturday evening, the North Carolina kicker was the hero.
Somehow, someway, the Tar Heels managed to score a victory on Saturday that was even more dramatic than the Houdini against Pitt just a week ago. Not only did Weiler’s 54-yard field goal power UNC to a 37-35 triumph over Florida State — snapping the Seminoles’ 22-game home winning streak (the longest in the nation); the senior added some spice by taunting the FSU faithful with his own celebratory tomahawk chop.
It was a thrilling win for a UNC team that looked dead after blowing a 21-0 lead.
It was also the latest example of Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora being rewarded for putting his faith in former walk-ons.
Weiler wasn’t a scholarship player when he arrived at the University of North Carolina four years ago. He redshirted in 2012 and was limited to kickoff duties in 2013.
The Fairfax Station, Virginia, native earned his first action as a placekicker in 2014, and by no means was it a smooth transition. Weiler was 5-of-8 on field-goal attempts as a sophomore, missing all three of his tries beyond 23 yards.
Fedora defended Weiler, insisting that the 6-foot, 190-pound kicker was an excellent practice player who simply hadn’t put it together on gameday. It wasn’t hollow support; after 2014, Weiler was put on scholarship.
Weiler demonstrated considerable improvement last fall, drilling 20 of his 23 field-goal attempts. Although his extra-point try following UNC’s last touchdown was blocked and left the Tar Heels in a vulnerable spot (they eventually fell behind, 35-34), his 54-yarder — tying for the second-longest field goal in school history — easily made up for the blunder.
He wasn’t the only past walk-on to step up for Carolina.
Mack Hollins’ non-scholarship days seem like a distant memory given his role in UNC’s offense over the last three seasons. His presence was a key again versus the Seminoles.
Hollins was hampered by a leg injury sustained against Pitt last weekend, but after sitting out the first half in Tallahassee, he looked 100 percent in the final 30 minutes. The senior caught five balls for 69 yards, none bigger than a 15-yard reception in the third quarter in which he extended his arm to put the ball across the plane of the goal line in the third quarter for a score that extended the Heels’ lead to 28-14. He also caught a 23-yard pass on UNC’s final drive and drew a defensive pass interference call two plays later to set up the game-winning kick.
While Hollins and Weiler shined against Florida State, another former North Carolina walk-on had his own moment as well.
Junior receiver Thomas Jackson, who earned a scholarship in August, put his team on his back as time was winding down. With just over 2:30 to go in regulation, the Charlotte product hauled in a pass near the sideline, juked two FSU defenders, and scampered 34 yards to paydirt to give his squad a 34-28 lead.
It seemed insufficient when Deondre Francois and Dalvin Cook led a Florida State touchdown drive, scoring with only 23 seconds on the clock. Then came Hollins. Then came Weiler to nail the game-winner.
All of it mattered.
When the final whistle blew, the team in light blue and white was the one celebrating.
It wouldn’t have happened if not for the three guys who once paid their own way to don Tar Heel uniforms.