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Elijah Hood has the chance to be one of the country’s best running backs

If Elijah Hood gets the ball as much as some of the country’s other great backs, his name will be mentioned right next to theirs.

North Carolina v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

North Carolina’s junior running back Elijah Hood has the opportunity, as well as the impressive skills, to be one of the nation’s premier running backs. It’s the dead of summer and hyperbole in college football is common around this time, but don’t underestimate Hood and his impact on the explosive Carolina offense.

He was recently named to the Maxwell Award watchlist, given out to the country’s best player. Simply put, there has been a lot of hype around Hood in Chapel Hill and, following a superb sophomore season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t find his name alongside the likes of Fournette, Cook, Chubb and McCaffrey come season’s end.

For the beginning of his career, Hood had been a part of a running back committee. He was fourth on the team in carries his freshman year and struggled to immediately find himself in the college game (just 3.87 yards per carry). Quarterback Marquise Williams and fellow running back T.J. Logan led the team in carries by a wide margin. Then, last year, Hood got the opportunity to be the lead back, and he quickly asserted himself as the best running back in Coach Fedora’s stable of capable, versatile guys. Hood carried the ball 219 times, with Logan coming in second for running backs with a much lower 66.

What did Hood do with those 219 carries? He ran all over the ACC, utilizing his 6’0” frame to break through the line and his great speed to push him to 17 touchdowns. He finished the year with 1,463 rushing yards on a ridiculous 6.68 yards per carry and found himself second in UNC’s single-season rushing yards total (behind Don McCauley’s 1,720 yards in 1970). It was a breakout season for Hood, and all signs are pointing to him being even better for the Heels in the fall.

There remains one nagging concern that could limit Hood’s output for 2016: the running back committee. Yes, Hood earned his No. 1 spot last year and the carries bear that out. There were times during the season where he should’ve been on the field, and he wasn’t. Most notably this happened during the opening game of the year against South Carolina in Charlotte. Hood only had 13 carries for the entire game, a low-scoring affair that ended in a Gamecocks win 17-13, but he used those few carries to get every yard possible (138 yards). Still, in the red-zone, the offense stalled. Hood either wasn’t on the field with 20 yards to go or he was just used to block.

What’d the offense do instead of giving the ball to their workhorse running back who was destroying the Gamecocks defense? Well, the worst of Marquise Williams showed up, throwing three brutal interceptions, including two in the end-zone. Williams was talented, and it’s hard to argue against keeping the ball in his hands for crucial situations. Yet, at a certain point, Hood needed the ball and didn’t get it.

Elsewhere, there were other times throughout the season where Hood was peculiarly left out of the game for either Logan or, worse, an inexperienced back not ready for the situation at hand. It’s both a blessing and a curse to have a plethora of great running backs. Injuries should be low, and no one should ever get too exhausted throughout the season. With a player like Hood, sometimes it can feel as though he should get as many carries as he can take. He’s that good. He’s earned the right and should have the endurance and body for twenty carries every game this upcoming season.

Appropriately enough, the biggest change for the UNC offense will also be the biggest change for Hood: the adjustment from the athletic and mobile Marquise Williams to the more prototypical Mitch Trubisky (still quick in his own right, but not quite the speedy game-changer Williams could be). Not only was Hood competing with Logan and others for time and carries, the Tar Heels had one of the best scrambling quarterbacks in the country in Williams. He led the team in carries two years ago and finished second behind Hood last year.

Trubisky won’t get anywhere close to 158 carries like Williams did the previous season and, certainly, a great deal of those carries should and will go to Hood. Lastly, Trubisky isn’t an experienced QB yet, and he’ll need time to get used to playing every down. A great running game led by Hood will have to be the focal point of the offense until Trubisky fully settles in.

All of this is to say that if Coach Fedora and the coaching staff let Hood run as many times as some of the other lead backs in the country, he can be just as effective and devastating as them. It would be hyperbolic to say he can approach 2,000 yards in a year, but that single-season record? Well within reach. Without Williams and with the stats to back it up, Hood is now the man in Chapel Hill. The only obstacle left in his path isn’t an ACC defense. It’s touches.