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UNC Football Position Preview: Quarterbacks

For the third straight year, UNC will have someone new under center. Will it be graduate transfer Brandon Harris? Or one of the returning reserves from last year?

LSU v Wisconsin Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Mitchell Trubisky’s meteoric rise through the UNC football program is done. (And maybe that’s a good thing.) The quarterback is the most important position on any football team, and for the third straight year, UNC will field someone new at the starting position.

That said, UNC is already dealing with enough turnover on the offensive side of the ball. Running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, and offensive linemen have all either graduated or gone to the NFL—of the seven UNC players drafted in the 2017 NFL draft, six of them played offense.

UNC will need someone capable to helm the ship and keep the team from regressing too much in what will be a season undoubtedly filled with some growing pains for the offense. Is there a capable person on the roster? Let’s find out.

Key Loss

Mitch Trubisky

Of the 456 pass attempts tossed by quarterbacks for UNC last season, Trubisky threw 447 of them. And out of 400 rush attempts by the UNC offense, Trubisky added in 93 as well, to be the team’s third-place rusher in attempts, yards, and touchdowns. And as he forewent his final year of eligibility to get drafted second overall (where he has done very well so far for the Bears), over 56% of the offense by this measure is now gone.

Key Returns

Redshirt Sophomore Nathan Elliott (6’1’’, 215): The only quarterback currently on the roster who has thrown a pass for UNC. He’s thrown six of them in fact, completing five of them for a total of 30 yards, all in limited action as Trubisky’s backup during his redshirt freshman season. In the spring game, Elliott went 8 for 12 for 213 yards and three touchdowns.

Redshirt Freshman Logan Byrd (6’3’’, 230): Per his player page on the UNC football website, Byrd, a Georgia native, was “ranked the No. 15 pro-style quarterback in the country by 247sports.com.” In the spring game, he went 12 of 21 for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Redshirt Freshman Chazz Surratt (6’3, 215): Surratt is probably the returning player with the highest ceiling. He’s an in-state prospect who holds NCHSAA records for total yards (16,593) and total scores (229), and he was the AP offensive player of the year in 2015, his senior season at East Lincoln High School in Denver, North Carolina. Surratt was 5 of 14 for 90 yards in the spring game.

Key Addition

Graduate Transfer Brandon Harris (6’3’’, 220): Harris is a new addition to the UNC roster after transferring from LSU, but he brings a wealth of experience to the table. In 25 career games with the Tigers, he threw for 2,756 yards, 20 TDs, and 10 INTs. He also rushed for 370 yards and 7 TDs. Harris lost his starting job as a junior, which played a factor in his decision to transfer out of the program.

Expectations

Currently, Elliott is taking all the first-team snaps during training camp, while Harris is working with the second team. This makes sense, as you don’t want to tank morale by anointing an outsider as the savior of the program when you have kids who have spent their UNC careers grinding for a chance to start. But Harris’s physical skills and experience playing against high-level competition suggest that he is more equipped to start than a quarterback who has thrown six passes in his career.

Elliott’s shining performance in the spring game means that the starting job is his to lose, and Harris is probably the only player who can take it. Harris did transfer away from a program in part because he lost his starting job—in the announcement of his transfer to UNC, Harris noted specifically that he was looking for “a great situation and another opportunity to grow as a young man and as a student as well as a football player.” It’s hard to imagine that he won’t at least be the starter for the opening game against Cal.

Byrd and Surratt are both valuable assets who will be with the UNC program for (hopefully) the next four years, with Surratt being the most exciting prospect of the two. But I don’t see a situation other than injury that would result in either of them seeing the field more than sparingly this season.

One Burning Question

Who’s going to start?

Actually, THB covered this yesterday. Let’s use this space to ask another question.

Will the offense be more balanced this year?

Coach Larry Fedora’s best offenses are predicated on balance: if you’re just as good at running the ball as you are at passing it, defenses logically will have a harder time gameplanning. Last year, the run-pass ratio skewed more towards passing the ball (53.4%) than it has in any year Fedora has been in Chapel Hill. For context, Fedora’s career run-pass ratio is 52.6% in favor of running the ball.

A big part of that was the Trubisky tornado that tore through Chapel Hill. No one ever doubted the rushing ability of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. A lot of programs would love to have one of those players at running back, and UNC had both of them! But gameplanning the offense around Trubisky’s skill set meant that there were barely enough touches for one running back, let alone two.

UNC isn’t nearly as stacked in the backfield this year as they were last year. The team returns only one player who scored a rushing touchdown for UNC last year: true sophomore Jordon Brown, who scored for UNC in the Sun Bowl. The Heels also add another graduate transfer in Stanton Truitt, who rushed for two touchdowns for Auburn during the 2016 season.

Regardless of who starts, it’s doubtful that they will be given as much of a focus in the offense as Trubisky was given. Both Harris and Elliott are dual threats more similar to Marquise Williams than T.J. Yates, which bodes well for their fit in Fedora’s preferred option offense. Which one of them walks out on the field against Cal will come down to whether Fedora prefers experience against top talent to experience within the program.