I know it’s been discussed over and over again, and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but the Tar Heels’ 2017 season was defined by injuries, plain and simple. This is especially relevant when looking at the wide receivers and tight ends who, to say the least, were not immune to the injury bug.
After losing a talented trio of wideouts the year prior (Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard each went on to pursue NFL careers), Carolina still found itself in decent shape heading into last season. With established veteran Austin Proehl leading the way and Anthony Ratliff-Williams set to explode, along with a handful of promising young talents, there wasn’t a whole lot of concern for the Tar Heel ball-catchers. But as it did for nearly every position group, an inability to stay healthy vastly altered the picture.
Four of the Heels’ top five returning receivers missed time due to injury, three of which missed six or more games. All of a sudden, they were left with a batch of largely unproven, inexperienced wideouts and tight ends to go along with an unusually shaky quarterback situation. The result, as most will recall, was not great.
However, if the team can actually stay relatively healthy this season, this position group has a chance to provide some stability for the Heels.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dazz Newsome
These two were a couple of bright spots for an otherwise dismal Tar Heel offense. When other skill players started dropping one by one, it was Ratliff-Williams and Newsome that answered the bell. Now a junior and sophomore, respectively, they will be tasked with leading a young receiving corps this season.
For Ratliff-Williams, last year was sort of his coming-out party. He had by far the team’s most receiving yards with 630 and he did it on just 35 receptions. The dude was and is a big play waiting to happen, and not even necessarily with his hands. Ratliff-Williams became known around the ACC for his playmaking ability when he started scoring touchdowns both throwing the ball and returning kicks in addition to the ones he earned receiving.
Coach Fedora ultimately started looking for any way possible he could utilize his versatility and athleticism. I expect we’ll see plenty more creative plays involving Ratliff-Williams this year as he reassumes his role as the team’s top receiver.
Newsome, on the other hand, didn’t have quite the same impact, but he did get valuable experience to put him in a position to have a breakout year of his own this season. Newsome reeled in 18 catches for 227 yards in 2017, making him fifth on the team in receiving yards. It’s likely he’ll line up opposite Ratliff-Williams in 2018, lending him an opportunity for a sizable increase in production.
Brandon Fritts and Austin Proehl
For starters, Brandon Fritts is obviously still on the team, but an ACL tear during spring practice suggests his season is likely over before it even started. This is a huge blow to the Heels considering this is a guy who, despite the injury, is already getting some NFL draft buzz. Fritts caught 25 balls last season and recorded 177 yards. His absence means fellow tight end Carl Tucker will take on a heavier workload.
The loss of Austin Proehl was clearly much more anticipated, but it still stings. Proehl had easily the best hands on the team. Any pass that was thrown in his vicinity, he was going to haul it in somehow. Having a guy like that was enormous given the inconsistency behind center, so his presence will be especially missed if those QB struggles continue.
Dyami Brown and Antoine Green
Although the Tar Heels’ 2018 recruiting class did not feature any tight ends, they did manage to snag a pair of skilled wideouts. Brown and Green are each listed as four-stars and are considered to be top 350 players, according to 247sports.
In his final two seasons of high school, Brown amassed 95 receptions and 1643 yards to go along with 22 touchdowns. His size and athleticism enable him to play more than one position though he’s likely to stick to playing receiver. He possesses great length and leaping ability, making him potentially useful in red zone opportunities.
Green is another big body that could be used in jump ball situations. He is slightly bigger and perhaps a little more physical than Brown, but not quite as athletic. Both players could be allowed opportunities to shine given the overall youth of the receiving corps.
In 2016, the Tar Heel receivers combined for 3811 receiving yards. In contrast, they managed just 2705 yards last season. Without a doubt, having the eventual number two pick in the draft under center makes a difference, but there’s no question that guys like Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins could’ve been a huge help to UNC’s floundering QBs last year. The point is, regardless of quarterback play, the receivers have at least some impact on that number, and I suspect they’ll help increase it this season.
Though probably not quite as menacing as the running back trio, this group is set to compete more like what we’re used to seeing from Carolina pass-catchers. There are few players in college football as multifaceted as Anthony Ratliff-Williams, and he is sure to draw lots of attention from opposing defenses, leaving the door open for players such as Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales, and Thomas Jackson to step up.