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UNC Football: How will Mack Hollins’ injury affect the Tar Heels?

Can North Carolina overcome an injury to one of its best offensive players?

Pittsburgh v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After leading the nation in yards per reception as a junior, Mack Hollins seemed primed to take the nation by storm in 2016. While his numbers to start the season weren’t as eye-popping as they were in 2015, they were still very good. Therefore, of course, it is highly unfortunate that he has been ruled out for the season with a broken collarbone, and UNC does not really have a receiver who can replicate Hollins’ combination of size, speed, and toughness at the catch point. However, the season must go on, and UNC must find a way to adapt the offense to what the Heels do have, which is still a very deep receiving corps.

Let’s get one thing straight: We are NOT looking at the Georgia game as evidence that the offense needs Hollins. I’ve seen people doing it and it’s just lazy analysis. Mitch Trubisky averaged less than 4.0 yards per attempt that game. The only other time that’s happened this year was in the hurricane against Virginia Tech. That game was an aberration, and it’s not like the offense changed when Hollins came back; he had one catch for just six yards. Trubisky was clearly not prepared for the season at that point, so it’s best to ignore it when we’re looking toward the future.

Luckily for the Heels, they have no shortage of deep threats. UNC’s top five receivers not including Hollins (Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Austin Proehl, T.J. Logan, and Thomas Jackson, in case there was any doubt) have all caught at least one pass of 30 yards or longer, though those receptions have not always been downfield (looking at you, Thomas Jackson). Three other players deeper on the depth chart (namely Khris Francis, Jordan Cunningham, and Jake Bargas) have receptions of 20 yards or longer. The offensive staff have found creative ways to spread the ball around down the field, and the players have executed the deep offense exquisitely throughout the season.

These players get their deep yards in different ways, and because of this, it’s not super likely that any one of them takes over Hollins’ role. Switzer is an open-field runner; while he can get downfield with speed, he’s best used on shorter routes that give him space where he can put his return man skills to good use.

Proehl, while not as fast, similarly gets open with route running, though he is more adept at getting separation with cuts deep downfield. I’ve noticed that he makes a lot of his deep catches on the sideline, and this is because he’s so good at breaking off deep routes to the sidelines.

Howard, honestly, has a lot of the capabilities that Hollins did, minus some speed and plus some physicality. It’s unlikely the staff changes his role, though, as he has done well for himself this year filling the chain-mover role held last year by Quinshad Davis. Jackson is a bit of an unknown quantity, but it’s worth noting that his longest reception came on a screen. I don’t think he’s been targeted too deep downfield.

All this said, yardage is yardage, and UNC is a deep passing team with or without Hollins. A quarterback doesn’t average more than eight yards per attempt on the strength of just one receiver. It’s likely that the coaches just use these receivers how they are best used, without worrying too much about replacing Hollins’ ability to stretch the defense. In a downfield offense, the defense is already stretched. In terms of lineup, Proehl will probably move to the slot while Switzer and Howard start outside. This is still a formidable receiving corps.

But if the staff do want to stretch the defense, there are options.

T.J. Logan is a running back, but he’s gone deep several times too, and, without looking at their hands, honestly seems to be a good replacement for Hollins. We all know how fast he is, and though he doesn’t have Hollins’ height, he wouldn’t need it with his speed. If Elijah Hood is healthy, I wouldn’t mind seeing lineups with Hood behind Trubisky and Logan out wide ready to run deep. Additionally, third-string running back Khris Francis has also gone deep a couple of times and looked pretty good doing it, so he could be another option to put out wide.

If not that, then it could be time for another receiver to step up. The most likely candidate might be redshirt freshman Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The converted QB is pretty fast, and while he does not have Hollins’ size, like Logan, he wouldn’t need it if he could get open with speed. He has one catch for six yards this season, which sounds familiar...

when Hollins came back; he had one catch for just 6 yards.

I kid, I kid. As the second half of the season approaches, we will see how Fedora and co. approach the new offense.