The running back situation for the Tar Heels is a situation that might be the easiest to love in terms of what we already know. The team returns two strong-performing players from the 2018 catastrophe, and there will be some new faces to help solidify the depth chart. Now that the team will likely have an improvement at the quarterback spot (speaking of which, if you haven’t read Akil Guruparan’s preview of that particular position, you should click here), we should expect some stronger production from the backfield as well. After all, it’s a lot easier to run the ball when passes are being completed, right?
Let’s take a look at Mack Brown’s weapons in the backfield for the 2019 season, and how these guys can help lead the charge for the offense.
The running back position took a hit following the Mack Brown hire, as former UNC player Jordon Brown entered the transfer portal following a junior season that saw his role diminished. However, his absence didn’t leave a significant void, as both Michael Carter and Antonio Williams provided a good amount of production in what was otherwise a turbulent season. Also returning for the Heels at the running back spot is sophomore Javonte Williams, who appeared in all 11 games both in the backfield and also on special teams. Finally, North Carolina product and walk-on British Brooks will be going into his sophomore year after appearing in six games during his freshman season.
Michael Carter was the best-performing running back for last year’s team. In the nine games that he played in, Carter had 84 carries for a total of 597 yards and two touchdowns, and caught 25 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. He averaged an exceptional 7.1 yards per carry rushing, and in the air he averaged 5.4 yards per catch. His best game of the season was against Virginia Tech, when he ran for 165 yards on 18 carries.
Antonio Williams is going into his senior year, but it will only be his second season in Chapel Hill. The former Ohio State player appeared in 10 games for the Tar Heels last season, and ran for 504 yards and five TDs on 91 carries as UNC’s primary back for most of the season. In the passing game, Williams caught 16 passes for 131 yards but was unable to get into reach the end zone through the air. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and in the passing game he averaged 8.2 yards per catch, though this number is a bit inflated considering the amount of receptions that he had. His most productive game last year was against Syracuse, when he ran for 116 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, and also added 38 receiving yards to his season total.
Javonte Williams will be going into his sophomore year and will look to see more production as a running back than he did the previous season. Though he only logged 43 carries for the Heels, Williams was able to run for 224 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Most of his carries came late in the season, particularly in his 93-yard rushing performance against Western Carolina, and his 83-yard performance against NC State (if you’re good at math, you’ll see that those two games accounted for all but 48 of his season yardage). In those two games combined, Williams scored four of his five touchdowns for the season.
British Brooks is a 5’11 205-lb running back that is coming off of his first season with the team as a true freshman. He appeared in six games, but he mostly was utilized on special teams. He saw action at running back against Western Carolina, running the ball seven times for 57 yards and looking like he belonged in college football.
The only newcomer for this year’s football team at the running back spot is Josh Henderson, who is a freshman out of Pennington, NJ. The 6’1, 205-lb back was a three-star prospect, and was the 37th best running back in the country according to the 247 Sports Composite.
Henderson attended The Hun School in New Jersey, where he finished his high school career with 4,294 total yards and 41 touchdowns. He helped lead THS to a couple of prep league championships his senior year, and was named New Jersey Prep Player of the Year. In his final year in high school, Henderson ran for 833 yards on 80 carries, and caught 10 passes for 162 yards and nine touchdowns.
For those who aren’t familiar with his style of play, Henderson is an inside runner that likes to use his vision and juke moves to make his way through the defense. Given his frame, is is very capable of bulldozing defenders over, but ultimately relies on his shiftiness to get the job done. His skillset compliments the new Air Raid offense nicely, as the scheme will make safeties play outside of the box, which benefits one-cut inside runners like Henderson nicely when they only have to deal with the defending team’s front seven, giving them more space between the tackles.
What to Expect
The easy answer as to what we should expect from this group of guys this year is a a lot of fluidity in the offensive packages. Focusing specifically on Michael Carter, Antonio Williams, and Javonte Williams, we’re likely going to see each of these backs at various times through any given game at the beginning of the season. Carter is a very fast running back that can get to the outside and burn teams. Antonio Williams is a load to handle, and in goal line situations it will be very hard to prevent him from getting into the end zone, and he is a capable pass-catcher as well. Finally, Javonte Williams has been referred to as possibly the most complete back on the roster, and the level of his production in just the Western Carolina and NC State games last year points to his potential.
If we’re to believe what is coming from Mack Brown’s staff and everybody around it, then it is actually reasonable to expect Javonte Williams eventually playing a large amount of the snaps for the Tar Heels, which could lead to him having a breakout year. However, it’s hard to foresee a situation where Carter and A. Williams do not get a fair share of reps as well, and there will be more than enough situations that call for each of their services. Overall, this group of guys may be the highlight of the offense in Mack Brown’s inaugural year, as Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense should spread defenses out to the point that running backs have a field day. Brown himself has said repeatedly that running back is the best position group on UNC’s roster. There’s enough versatility and talent among the three to where it’ll be very difficult for defenses to deal with the various packages being thrown at them, even before throwing Henderson’s unique talent into the mix. That is, of course, only as long as the quarterback/receivers uphold their end of the bargain as well.
In short, the running back position should be very fun to watch this year. Expect a lot of ankles breaking, helmets cracking, and hopefully enough points on the board to help this football program right the ship that was sank deep in the ocean last year.