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Questions at quarterback? UNC may already have the answers.

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A quick trip down memory lane indicates UNC can expect improved quarterback play next season.

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s football season did not go as planned. You know that. You accept that. Fortunately, a large number of returning contributors will welcome Larry Fedora’s best recruiting class since he arrived at UNC. There are plenty of reasons to expect the Heels to bounce back. Whether that return to respectability results in in a winning record will largely depend on one, glaring, obvious question.

Will the quarterback play improve?

There’s no need to rehash the specifics of last season, but here are the CliffsNotes.

During the 2016 season, Caleb Henderson transferred to Maryland and second overall-pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Mitch Trubisky, only hung around for one year as the starter. That left an unexpected void at QB. The Heels brought in graduate transfer Brandon Harris from LSU as a stop-gap. Instead, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt won the starting quarterback competition. By the end of the season, redshirt sophomore Nathan Elliott was the starting quarterback.

Go ahead and take a few seconds to laugh at the absurdity of the entire situation. Calling it a clown show is being polite. And yet, the eternal optimist inside of my soul can’t shake the feeling that one of last year’s quarterbacks, Elliott or Surratt, are going to surprise next season. We’ll have plenty of time this summer to debate which quarterback that may be, but for now, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

In the past 20 years, only three quarterbacks who finished their career at UNC – Ronald Curry, Darian Durant, and T.J. Yates — saw significant time as a freshman or redshirt freshman. All three of those guys had varying levels of success. At various points, prior to Larry Fedora’s arrival, Curry, Durant and Yates owned almost every statistical North Carolina passing record that existed. How do their first seasons compare to Surratt’s redshirt freshman year and Elliott’s redshirt sophomore year? (Note: Cameron Sexton played in eight games in 2006, but lost the starting job to Yates in 2007. Sexton transferred after the 2008 season).

UNC QBs, Year 1

Player CMP-ATT YDS CMP% YDS/A TD INT RATING UNC RECORD
Player CMP-ATT YDS CMP% YDS/A TD INT RATING UNC RECORD
Chazz Surratt 107-183 1342 58.5 7.33 8 3 131.2 3-9
Nathan Elliott 75-146 926 51.4 6.34 9 5 118.1 3-9
T.J. Yates ('97) 218-365 2655 59.7 7.27 14 18 123.9 4-8
Darian Durant ('01) 142-223 1843 63.7 8.3 17 10 149.3 8-5
Ronald Curry ('98) 66-147 975 44.9 6.6 6 7 104.6 7-5

For context, consider in 2001 a freshman Durant split time with a senior Curry. That should jog some memories of the dueling quarterback system long before Larry Fedora made it an almost annual occurrence. Additionally in 1998, Ronald Curry split time with a senior Oscar Davenport thanks to various injuries and suspensions. Both of those players may provide the best comparison to last year’s quarterbacks, just because of the nature of their arrangements.

Regardless, here’s the main takeaway. Only Durant had a stellar freshman season. Everyone else was….not good. As stated above, neither Surratt nor Elliott had truly been groomed or expected to play heavy minutes last year. The final scores did not indicate much success from the position and we all know what we saw against Virginia Tech when Surratt was essentially shut down for the year. And yet, there may be a legitimate case that Surratt was on pace to have a better season than Yates did in 2007.

All I’m trying to say is that there is some hope for this season. That optimism is reinforced, however slightly, when examining each player’s second season behind center. Check it out.

UNC QBs, Year 2

Player CMP-ATT YDS CMP% YDS/A TD INT RATING UNC RECORD
Player CMP-ATT YDS CMP% YDS/A TD INT RATING UNC RECORD
Chazz Surratt ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ??
Nathan Elliott ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ??
T.J. Yates ('07) 81-135 1168 60.0 8.7 11 4 153.6 8-5
Darian Durant ('02) 147-248 2122 59.3 8.6 16 9 145.2 3-9
Ronald Curry ('99) 54-110 682 49.1 6.2 3 10 92.0 3-8

OK. Wait. Many of those overall totals are worse or, at best, the same as the prior season. Right?

Technically yes. However, Curry only played five games due to injury. Durant only played in eight games. Yates battled an ankle injury and technically played in seven games, though he only threw three passes against Georgia Tech. So, let’s call that six games.

When that context is added, it’s fair to argue that those QBs didn’t exactly regress. After last year’s dumpster fire, I don’t think many fans would argue with anything resembling Durant’s and Yates’ sophomore stats for an entire season, much less eight or six games. Not to mention, quarterback play didn’t show a consistent impact on the overall win-loss record from year to year. (Small sample size, I know).

Here’s the deal. Surratt did a poor job handling anything that remotely resembled adversity, struggled to read defenses, and too often failed to progress through his reads. However, he had moments of brilliance that had UNC fans salivating over his athletic potential. In other words, he played like a freshman. (That stiff-arm against Duke should be a part of his highlight package for the rest of his career.)

For his part, Elliott’s arm strength and accuracy makes UNC fans hold their collective breath. Sure his supporters point to the road victory at Pittsburgh, but Anthony-Ratliff Williams deserves the majority of the credit for that win. Yet, it’s undeniable that the team responded more assertively to his leadership and passed the highly scientific eye-test down the stretch. Those intangibles matter.

I have no idea how much improvement either QB will show on the field. They both have glaring flaws with the potential for overwhelming strengths. However, if previous UNC quarterbacks are any indication, it’s ok to get a little excited about a higher level of quarterback play this upcoming season. History has shown that UNC’s answers at quarterback have already been on the field.