Heading into the 2018 football season, one of the biggest questions was who would be starting under center for the Tar Heels. Chazz Surratt took over for Brandon Harris pretty early into the season last year. Despite the less than spectacular team record, Surratt played pretty well for most of the season. Then he got hurt in the Miami game, and Nathan Elliot finished that game, and started the remaining three games of the year.
Elliott is not as purely talented as Surratt, but he did enough to give himself a chance to win the starting job. The Surratt-Elliott camp battle was supposed to be the training camp competition to watch this fall. But with Surratt missing the first four games and Elliott being named the starter early on as a result, there are a few different players who could step into the QB2 role for the Tar Heels to start the season. There are a couple of players who were on the roster last season who we’ll talk about, but let’s start with two players from the 2018 recruiting class.
Larry Fedora brought in two quarterbacks in the 2018 class: Cade Fortin from Suwanee, Georgia, and Jace Ruder from Norton, Kansas. Most programs try to bring in a quarterback as part of every recruiting class, but it’s uncommon to see two quarterbacks in the same class. This is partly because programs only have so many scholarships per position per class, and they understandably try to spread them out as best they can. Also, quarterbacks simply want to get on the field, and they only have four or five years to maximize their playing time. Due to the nature of the position, if you’re not the first guy on the depth chart you’re probably not going to see the field a whole lot that season. With every other position there are varying degrees of rotation due to depth, fatigue, and game planning (with the potential exception of offensive line, but that’s another article.) So, if one quarterback commits to a school early it’s uncommon to see a university recruit a second player at that position in that cycle, and even more uncommon for that second player to commit.
But here we are in August, and both of UNC’s highly touted freshmen have an opportunity to get some snaps early in the year, either in garbage time or if Elliott has to leave the field. Most recruiting sites listed Ruder as a four-star recruit, while Fortin’s evaluation was more varied: some sites considered him a four-star talent, others rated him a three-star guy. Both players have been on campus since January, so they went through spring ball and have had months in the playbook. So if either of them are needed, those extra few months are going to have been invaluable.
Fortin, rated as a pro-style QB out of high school, is more college-ready for sure. Coming out of high school he had offers from Cal, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Ole Miss, among others; he was actually committed to Texas A&M before flipping to UNC. In high school, he showed more of an ability to make college throws—deep out routes, back shoulder fades, etc—than Ruder did. The first thing that stands out from watching Fortin, though, is that he plays big. He’s only listed at 6’2” but he’s a big 6’2,” which will make more sense when you see him on the field this fall. He doesn’t have Ben Roethlisberger size, but that’s the vibe I got from watching his high school tape. He has that tough elusiveness that gives him the confidence to stay in the pocket and wait for plays to develop, which allows a play caller to run more complicated route combinations.
Another thing he does well is throw his receivers open. In high school, he’d use his arm talent to create a window that most high school quarterbacks simply can’t. But because he has such a talented arm, he did sometimes show a tendency to sit and wait on a receiver and rely on his arm strength to force the throw into windows that won’t exist against college defensive backs. Another issue he could work on is the angles of his throws, especially on deep balls. He had a tendency to put a ton of air under the ball, which again shows his arm strength. But on deep balls, as well as sometimes on underneath routes to backs, he can work on making the more appropriate, flatter throw to not allow defensive backs to catch up.
Ruder had an impressive offer list in his own right, including offers from Florida State, Georgia, and Kansas State. He actually attended Florida State’s camp with Justin Fields, the number one quarterback prospect from the 2018 class, who was deciding between Florida State and Georgia (he picked Georgia). Ruder was rumored to be the Seminoles’ number two guy, but he ended up at Chapel Hill. He was rated, depending on the site, as a dual-threat and pro-style quarterback prospect. That doesn’t add up right away, but turn on Ruder’s high school tape and you’ll see why he was so hard to assess. After watching his game I considered him a dual threat, but that’s because he is a true running threat with legit arm talent. He doesn’t quite have the arm strength (or at least, functional arm strength) that Fortin does, but he throws with really nice touch. Ruder’s most impressive throwing ability is his anticipation. Either on breaking routes, or during scramble drill, he seemed to have a complete feel for what his receivers and the defense would do. He was always a step or two ahead of everyone else on the field. His accuracy was a little bit scattershot, but he clearly has the mental part of the game down.
Plus, the dude can run. He ran for fifteen touchdowns and over 1,000 yards as a senior. If you need proof of his speed, he clocked a 4.45 40-yard dash according to his Hudl page. He played a lot of zone read in high school, which isn’t exactly the offense that Fedora runs, it’s more similar than the offense Fortin played in. While Fortin has a tough elusiveness to him, Ruder has more of a natural pocket presence - standing in the pocket doesn’t feel like work for him. This comparison only applies to pocket presence and running style, but in that sense Ruder reminds me a lot of Carson Wentz.
There are a couple other players on the roster who could take the backup quarterback spot during the first four games of the year. Manny Miles is a senior from Baton Rouge. He’s actually the son of former LSU and Oklahoma State head coach Les Miles. He, by virtue of being the only quarterback who has actually taken a snap in college, has far more experience than the incoming freshean. He hasn’t taken a meaningful snap, other than holding kicks, but they were snaps nonetheless. If Miles does get the nod at QB2 on opening day, his four years of experience in the program will definitely have been the biggest factor in that decision.
The other guy on the roster to look at is redshirt freshman Jack Davidson. He’s also going to miss the Cal game, so it’s a long shot to think that he’d come into week two and get the nod at backup after the other three guys are going to out-rep him in practice leading up to the opener. Davidson, like Ruder, ran a lot of zone read in high school. He’s been in the program longer than Ruder and Fortin, but by virtue of his missing the first game and those two having been on campus since the spring, I think they both have a better shot to get the backup job.
Worst-case scenario, if Elliott does go down mid game in a close game, I would bet on Manny Miles coming in to finish up. But if Elliott is going to miss extended time, I think Fedora would go with Ruder or Fortin, particularly with the new redshirt rule that allows first-year players to play in up to four games and maintain eligibility for a redshirt. With this rule, playing one of the true freshmen is a really low-risk option for Fedora.
As for who between the two I think Fedora would turn to: Fortin might seem the logical choice. He’s shown more of an ability to make college throws, and I think he is more physically ready to play right away than Ruder. But there’s something about watching Jace Ruder that just makes me think he’s going to be the guy over Fortin. His playing style is a better fit for Carolina’s offense, and while he might not have the arm talent or accuracy that Fortin does, he consistently makes the appropriate throw. There are enough talented skill players on UNC that whoever plays quarterback isn’t going to have to carry the team to victory. Ruder’s running ability will allow UNC’s offense to stay multi-dimensional. Even with Michael Carter missing games early due to a wrist injury, Carolina still has two really talented running backs and a deep receiving corps, led by All-ACC player Anthony Ratliff-Williams. In the end, Ruder’s athleticism and decision-making will be, in my opinion, what get him to number two on the depth chart for the first four games of the season.