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UNC at Cal: Player(s) to Watch

Whoever gets the starting nod as the slot receiver should garner extra attention.

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re three days away from the first UNC football game of the season. You’ve read positional previews, worried about the quarterback situation, or rolled your eyes at numerous off the field distractions. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the field.

As we do before every game, our staff provides a player that could be a potential X-factor. A guy that may be a difference maker, but doesn’t stick out right away as an important piece to success. We know Nathan Elliott will be watched closely, Antonio Williams brings big-time talent, and every defensive lineman is ready to put years of lackluster performances in the past.

So, for the first X-factor of the 2018 season we’re going with….

The Slot Receiver

Nobody is certain who will start in the slot receiver position when the Heels take the field, but it may be the most important position on the field. Fifth year senior Thomas Jackson and sophomore Dazz Newsome seem to be the two likely candidates to see significant time, and both bring different skillsets to the position.

Jackson returns after tearing his ACL last season. Jackson isn’t going to “wow” anyone when he lines up. He does not have blazing speed, superhuman strength, or a dominant size advantage. What he does bring to the equation is an in-depth knowledge of the offense, the ability to run precise routes, and a sneaky efficiency in the red zone.

In 2016 he notched 4 touchdowns, including a crucial fourth quarter, 34-yard catch and run against Florida State. With two touchdowns in three games last year – including a 4 catch, 75-yard performance against Louisville- he’ll provide a much needed safety blanket to Nathan Elliott across the middle – especially if Dyami Brown and Anthony Ratliff-Williams can stretch the field.

The other likely slot receiver is sophomore Dazz Newsome. Like most freshmen, Newsome’s rookie campaign was inconsistent, but he showed flashes of immense potential throughout the season. Unlike Jackson, Newsome is a ball of speed, athleticism, and explosiveness. What he has not mastered yet in terms of route running or experience, he makes up for with physical tools.

Those gifts were on full display early last season, when he took a quick pitch from the backfield and turned that into a 54-yard gain as he weaved through the Louisville defense. Newsome’s comfort with Nathan Elliott was also on display against Pittsburgh when he had a season high 5 catches for 46 yards.

Both players bring different strengths to the offense. On Saturday, UNC will need to rely on Jackson’s experience and Newsome’s athleticism to keep California off balance.