Coming into the season, the narrative on Carolina’s football team was pretty simple: the offense lost 98% of its yards from 2016, and would be forced to hold down the reset button. The defense, with its experience, was supposed to take a step forward.
While the Heels have been a mixed bag on D, the offense has exceeded expectations through a quarter of the young season.
Injuries have taken a huge bite out of the experienced players and projected leaders on both sides of the ball. Senior O-linemen Bentley Spain and Cam Dillard were supposed to be the bellcows up front, and have played about 20 snaps together. (Note: not that we’ll ever find out for sure, but William Sweet may be out too.) Linebacker Andre Smith missed the Old Dominion game and his status going forward is an unknown. Thomas Jackson looks to miss extended time after injuring his knee in the first quarter in Norfolk.
All of this adversity has led to Carolina being in full youth movement mode, and that bodes well for the future. As this blogger gets a little verbose, this breakdown is going to have to be split into two parts. Coming up first...
Offense— underclassmen (literally) everywhere.
Aided by garbage time touchdowns in each of the first two games, the UNC offense is producing exactly seven points per game more than the 2016 unit. That’s amazing.
Redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt has taken the reins as the “QB of the future”, and exceeded expectations. He’s completing nearly 70% of his passes, and has yet to throw a pick (knock on wood). The depth chart at QB moving forward is going to be very young and talented. With a sophomore Surratt leading the way into 2018, highly touted incoming freshmen Tyler Shough and Jace Ruder filling in, and holdovers Logan Byrd and Nathan Elliott, the Heels will be deep and good at the position for the rest of the decade.
Of Carolina’s rushing yards, 94% come from guys who have at least two years of eligibility remaining after this year. Jordon Brown and Michael Carter are a nice 1-2 punch, essentially splitting carries. Both are right at 5.5 YPC. Johnathan Sutton got his first action in mop up duty against ODU and looked the part of a goal line beast moving forward. And of course, Surratt has aided the rushing attack with three touchdowns.
The only spot where seniors are shining is at receiver, as Austin Proehl and Jordan Cunningham are the top two in targets, receptions, and yards. But they’re flanked by a bevy of options not yet old enough to drink. Sophomore tight end Carl Tucker is at 100 receiving yards for the year, true freshman A-back Dazz Newsome figures to be a featured option moving forward with Jackson out, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Roscoe Johnson, and Juval Mollette are all getting some burn.
Add in junior Brandon Fritts at tight end, and dynamic playmakers Jordyn Adams and Dyami Brown for 2018, and the receiving corps appears to have as much explosive potential as any we’ve ever seen over the next 3-4 years.
Most amazing, as mentioned earlier, is the performance of the offensive line. While seniors R.J. Prince and Khaliel Rodgers have gotten plenty of playing time, the line’s MASH unit status has paved the way for the Heels to field some combinations of linemen without a single upperclassman. Tackles William Sweet and Charlie Heck figure to keep those positions through 2019, and center Jay-Jay McCargo through 2020. Guard is a little more sketchy with Tommy Hatton still AWOL, but Nick Polino is a starter and Mason Veal and Tyler Pritchett have been fine in spot duty.
OL recruiting was a major focus in the 2017 class, and the talented bunch looks set to redshirt. 6’6 340 lb. tackle Marcus McKeithan was one of the stars of fall camp, and guard Jonah Melton was the highest-rated recruit in the class.
Just looking ahead to 2018 and projecting a depth chart, there is an incredible combination of youth and experience:
- QB: Surratt, Elliott, Byrd, Shough, Ruder— only Elliott will be an upperclassman.
- HB: Brown, Carter, Sutton, Stanton Truitt (BTW, another grad transfer who’s been injured), and whomever the staff can find as a 2018 RB.
- WR: Ratliff-Williams’ explosiveness, Jackson’s steady hand, Newsome, Johnson, redshirt 4-star J.T. Cauthen, sophomore Beau Corrales, and the aforementioned Adams and Brown— plus ‘veterans’ Devin Perry, Mollette, and Josh Cabrera.
- TE: Fritts and Tucker, Jake Bargas (who has looked the part in garbage time), 4-star rising sophomore Garrett Walston.
- OL: Let’s call Sweet/Polino/McCargo/Melton/Heck the starters for 2018. Hatton, if he returns, grabs one of the guard spots. There is talented youth behind each position, a luxury the 2017 Heels don’t possess due to attrition, injuries, and five true freshmen hopefully maintaining their redshirts.