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UNC Football Position Preview: Running Backs

The quarterback spot is a big offensive weakness for the Heels, but the ground game may be their biggest strength.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

OK, we cried at the thoughts of the quarterback position on Monday. Let’s change the tone a little, shall we?

The ground attack for Carolina has a chance to be really good. Despite the revolving door of lineups last year, Carolina still managed to average over 144 yards a game on the ground. The attack forced defenses to play honest against the offense, and gave the depleted Tar Heels a chance in just about every game. That they couldn’t finish can be explained by a myriad of reasons, but the ground game was one of the few bright spots to point to last year.

With those questions under center continuing and a strong but young core of wide receivers, the chances are good that the ground game will be relied on to provide even more of a spark. The good news there is that this crop seems up to the task, with polish and depth to help take some stress off the other aspects.

While this group is arguably the strongest, there are still plenty of questions, as we will see.

Key Returners

Jordon Brown and Michael Carter

The two leading rushers from 2017 return to the backfield for 2018. The dynamic junior and sophomore combined for 1169 yards, 12 touchdowns, and both broke a 50+ yard run at some point during the year.

Brown, specifically, will be under the microscope. The sophomore was forced to step up and take a heavier load of the offense as the rest of the pieces around him fell. He was one of the few players to play in all 12 of UNC’s games last year, and ended the season with a healthy 4.4 yards a game, led the team with 613 yards rushing, and was a rare bright spot on an otherwise gloomy season. Not content with just rushing, he also was the fourth leading reciever, going for 237 yards.

Don’t sleep on Carter, though. The Florida Native stepped into the second running back role and had a few highlights of his own.

Carter came into the season possibly staring at a redshirt as the thought was Elijah Hood was going to team with Brown. Hood ended up leaving early, and with the depth being thin, Carter stepped up to the second back role. These highlights are from his 157-yard game that helped lead the UNC comeback against UVa that came just short. Carter led the team in rushing touchdowns with eight, and now that Carter knows what to expect the potential is there for him to make a sharp improvement.

Key Loss

Brandon Harris

Yup, that’s how strong this group is. A look at last year’s stats finds the top four rushers (two of them quarterbacks) returning, and you have to get to fifth place the the LSU transfer to find someone leaving. There really isn’t much more to say on this.

Key Addition

Antonio Williams

Limiting this column to just one player is a a little unfair, as Carolina has five players with the term “freshmen” in their name. One of them is redshirt freshman Antwuan Branch, a top-50 RB in last year’s class. You also have true freshman Devon Lawrence from Wake Forest, a top-20 in-state prospect for the class of ‘18, and Javonte Williams from Wallace, NC, himself a top-100 in-state prospect.

The biggest addition, however, has to be the Ohio State transfer. The former four-star recruit grew tired of being a third string Buckeye, and decided to come back to North Carolina. If you need a refresher, take a look at this excellent break down done by our own Chad Floyd. In essence, Williams adds the one thing that Brown and Carter didn’t have: power to finish a drive at the goal line. Since the Fedora system doesn’t take time for substitutions, it’ll be interesting to see how Williams will be worked into the lineup. Rest assured, though, he will get touches.

Expectations

The UNC backfield is set to cause damage. Brown and Carter have a better idea of what to expect, and as we’ll learn later, the recruiting class coming in has some pretty good wide receivers that defenses will have to take seriously. This is going to cause the opposition to not be able to cheat and slow up the runners. Add to the fact that Brown and Carter can come out of the backfield and catch the ball themselves, they look to be big keys for an improved 2018.

That alone would be a cause for optimism, but add someone with the experience and talent like Williams to the mix, and you have the makings for one of the best running attacks in the ACC. Not many teams can offer the depth and experience of a three-back attack, and that doesn’t take into account the incoming players who have a redshirt they can play under.

That’s right, this is where you may see the NCAA’s new four game redshirt rule really get used. Maybe Lawrence comes in for a game or two to spell the main three, same with Devon Lawrence. The ability to keep each one of the featured backs a little bit fresher could play huge dividends at the end of the season where UNC is hopefully making a push for a bowl game.

The running backs were leaned on last year while the turnstile at quarterback continued all year, and it’s setting up for a similar situation this season. The good news is they not only have the experience to pull it off, they now have the depth to do it throughout the year.