Even in a 3-9 season, it was clear to see that UNC football had a couple of nice pieces for a future in which half the starting lineup didn’t fall to injury. One of them, receiver and returner Anthony Ratliff-Williams, earned recognition as the season went on, gaining a fan club in the announcing booth for his all-around game against Pittsburgh and then being named first-team All-ACC as a returner. If there is a player the national media knew the name of on UNC’s football squad by season’s end, it was Ratliff-Williams.
But with an offseason to reflect, it seems that a couple of selection committees have realized that ARW wasn’t the only player on UNC’s offense to shine when given the opportunity, and two more Tar Heels have been placed in the spotlight ahead of the season with nominations to preseason award lists: Running back Michael Carter is one of 62 running backs on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, and tight end Carl Tucker is one of 64 at his position on the John Mackey Award watch list.
This is the latest in a string of articles and nominations highlighting Carter as a player to watch this season. After an impressive true freshman year where he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 8 touchdowns on just 97 rushing attempts (with a decimated offensive line and no real threat at quarterback), it’s reasonable to think that Carter is primed for a huge leap from his already excellent standing. Pro Football Focus certainly believes in him, rating him 4th among returning ACC backs in elusiveness and gave him the 7th-highest offensive grade in the ACC among rising sophomores. To have done this without a redshirt year, as a three-star recruit, is all the more impressive. He is on 247’s list of ACC breakout players and, perhaps most notably, ranks 10th on their list of top ACC running backs. Carter’s one-cut, make-you-miss running style is something UNC hasn’t seen since Giovani Bernard, and while it’s early to call him the same kind of talent, it’s not early to call him a rising star. With players like Bryce Love (last year’s winner) and Myles Gaskin still in college, it’s unlikely that Carter will even really sniff the Doak Walker award this season, but it’s clear to anybody watching that he is well on his way up.
Tucker is a little more under-the-radar, having been one of the victims of UNC’s historic 2017 injury bug. In the three games before his injury, Tucker corralled 6 catches for 100 yards (3 for 79 against Old Dominion) and looked like a viable safety net for the inexperienced quarterbacks UNC would be relying on, with a knack for converting third downs and, against ODU, making big plays with his athleticism after the catch. This season, he presumably has the inside track to start after an injury to incumbent starter Brandon Fritts, and hopefully can stay on the track on which he began last season with an offense that is hopefully a little less anemic. Again, Tucker is far from the most notable name on the Mackey list, but don’t be surprised if he becomes a standout player this season.
Despite a season where just about everything went wrong, followed by a summer of recruiting more notable for its misses than hits, it’s good to remind ourselves that there is some reason for optimism around this season for the football program. Tucker and Carter have earned recognition from national media, and hopefully several of their teammates follow suit once play begins in September.