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UNC vs UVA Player to Watch: Austin Proehl

UNC has an unexpected opening at wide receiver. Austin Proehl is primed to be the “next man up”.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When UNC makes the trip to UVA on Saturday, they’ll be without one of their most feared weapons, Mack Hollins. Unfortunately, as most know by now, Mack crushed his collarbone into what I can only imagine is a finely-ground powder, and will be out for 4-6 months. Most collarbone injuries last 4-6 weeks.

Sadly, his playing days at UNC have come to an end. (Seriously, get well soon, Mack. Looking forward to seeing you on Sundays.) Fortunately, UNC seemingly creates wide receivers in a factory and throws a uniform on them as they come off the assembly line.

The next wide receiver who should become a regular in UNC football circles is none other than Austin Proehl. If UNC wants to continue with their mantra of “Next Man Up” then Proehl will need to be ready to step out of the shadows when he takes the field this weekend. While he’s had a few shining moments this season, including his career day against Pittsburgh, much of his success has come as the fourth option in the passing game.

Admittedly, Proehl doesn’t have the speed of Mack or Ryan Switzer. Nor does he have the size of Bug Howard. However, he makes up for any supposed deficiencies with insanely precise route running and hands made of velcro.

Surprisingly, this season his stat line is similar to Mack’s. Hollins had 16 receptions for 309 yards and four touchdowns, whereas Proehl has 24 receptions for 302 yards and two touchdowns. The difference between the two is Hollins’ ability to stress the opposing secondary deep down the field and gain more yards per catch. While Proehl cannot quite stretch the defense like Hollins, his ability to control the sideline and the middle of the field will prove plenty valuable for two specific reasons against UVA this weekend.

First, Proehl should get additional snaps from the slot, as Switzer likely has his role tweaked to adjust for Mack’s absence. Switzer’s size makes it difficult for him to get space down the sideline like Mack could. His speed, however, makes it possible to run deeper crossing routes through the middle of the field.

Those routes were often available to him because Hollins would move the safety out of position and the dual threat of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan often kept the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. Now, those safeties will have more freedom to cover Switzer as he looks for space, and guard Bug as he tries to use his body on the sidelines.

Additionally, UVA uses their linebackers to blitz. A lot. In 2016, UVA has witnessed five different linebackers account for eight of their 13 sacks. Theoretically, either scenario should open up some additional short and medium routes that Proehl excels in, both across the middle and near the sideline. Luckily, Trubisky also excels in the short to medium distance passing game. What a coincidence.

Secondly, UVA’s pass defense is about as solid as UNC’s run defense has been. In four of their six games, UVA has allowed over 300 yards passing. Four times, opponents have scored 30 points or more. They’ve allowed 11 passing touchdowns, including two to that borderline non-existent fearsome passing attack of Pittsburgh. Yes, UVA has forced seven interceptions. Five of them were against Duke. Consistency is not a strength. Neither, apparently, is pass defense.

Simply put, the UVA secondary has not met a passing attack like UNC’s all year long. Of those 11 passing touchdowns allowed, seven of them have come in the red zone. Or, for those who love math, 63.63636363% (repeating). Where did Proehl catch his two TDs? The red zone. And while Larry Fedora has (thankfully) called for more running plays inside the 10, he still likes a good goal line roll-out to give his wide receivers time to find an opening in the end zone. That shouldn’t change this weekend.

Bottom line, fans should look for Proehl to begin giving UNC fans a preview of what to expect next season. For that matter, let’s hope it’s a palatable appetizer for the rest of this season too.