We began our football position previews last week when Douglas gave a rundown of the quarterback room. Today, I‘ll stay in the backfield and give a quick breakdown of the running backs. A strength of the offense last year, if a bit underwhelming in finding the end zone, UNC returns talent, experience and depth, while welcoming some new faces.
Antonio Williams graduated and signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. Injuries hampered his playing time, limiting him to 48 carries, 322 yards and three touchdowns. A complementary third option, his leadership was a steadying presence during last year’s turnaround.
Recently named to the Paul Hornung Award preseason watch list, Michael Carter returns for his senior season looking to improve on last year’s breakout performance. He finished with 177 carries for 1,003 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to earn Third Team all-ACC honors. He also hauled in 21 receptions for 154 yards and another two touchdowns.
Carter can be UNC’s first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since Giovanni Bernard in 2011 and 2012. It’s a feat that has been achieved at UNC just four times since 1980 (Kelvin Bryant, Ethan Horton, Natrone Means, and Bernard). He’s never averaged less than 5.7 yards per carry in a season, so it may just be a matter of staying healthy and getting enough touches.
The rising junior just missed joining Carter as a 1,000 rusher. He finished his sophomore campaign with 166 carries, 933 yards, and five touchdowns. He added 17 receptions, 176 yards and one touchdown, giving Williams 1,109 yards from scrimmage. The last time UNC had two running backs accumulate 1,000 yards from scrimmage was 1993 when Curtis and Leon Johnson both accomplished that on the ground alone.
A punishing north-south runner with enough speed and acceleration to reach the second level, the junior seeks contact similar to former UNC running back Elijah Hood. Carter may get the preseason publicity, but Williams could be the better player by the end of the season. It will be a little tougher with just 11 games (depending on post-season outcomes), but as the perfect complement to Carter’s quickness and acceleration, he should find plenty of holes as opposing defenses wear down.
A sophomore who only saw action at running back in two games, Henderson will look to step into Antonio Williams’ role as a change of pace and/or late game option. The former four-star recruit out of New Jersey had 13 carries for 98 yards against Mercer. He followed that up the next week with 5 carries and 29 yards against NC State.
A walk-on, the rising junior had three carries for 10 yards and a touchdown against Mercer.
D.J. Jones and Elijah Green
Jones, from Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville, NC, was an early enrollee last January. IN typical years, that would give him the inside track to challenge Henderson for that third-string position. However, with the cancellation of spring practice and fluid offseason schedule, that may not happen. Per MaxPreps, Jones rushed for 900 yards and 11 touchdowns in just nine games last season.
Green, from Holy Trinity High School in Roswell, GA, is the second running back from the 2020 class. In 11 games as a high school senior, Green rushed for 1,646 yards and 21 touchdowns. He will also push for Henderson’s third-string spot.
It’s easy to get excited about Williams and Carter returning for an encore to last season. Another year in Phil Longo’s system and with Sam Howell at quarterback should make all UNC fans drool with anticipation. The duo will certainly be productive, unless the staff just forgets that running backs are allowed to touch the ball. (Which...has been a common occurrence in recent UNC football history).
However, it’s been 27 years since the Heels had two 1,000 rushers in the same season. This is now an 11-game season with 10 conference opponents, there are currently no cupcakes to pad the stats for a game or two, and the QB and WR groups are loaded with future NFL talent. Those factors will likely impact health, usage, and overall rushing production.
Will the staff continue a semblance of using Carter’s versatility early and Williams’ punishing physicality late? Will the opponent dictate the rushing game plan, or will the staff just wait for a hot hand to develop throughout the game? Has Williams improved enough to be the undisputed bell cow?
These questions will eventually have answers, but I’m hesitant that an effective solution will be found that will improve on last season. Carter and Williams combined for an underwhelming eight rushing touchdowns last year, and even though the final yardage totals were impressive, the season was marked with inconsistency for long stretches. Carter only rushed for 100 yards once – against Mercer. Williams topped triple digits three times, all before November.
The biggest unknown, though, is who grabs the third-string running spot? That battle may determine overall production from the group. The compressed schedule, currently against all Power 5 opponents, will make a third option more of a necessity than a luxury. That usually goes to an experienced upperclassman who understands his role and limitations, but unless British Brooks outplays his walk-on status, the Heels don’t have one this year.
Henderson will get the first crack, but his sample size was small and he was a Fedora commit. Will his skillset continue to fit as Longo’s offense expands? Can he serve as a late game punisher who eats up carries, yardage, and the clock against tired opponents? Or will Jones or Green emerge as a change of pace between the red zones, giving Carter and Williams a breather as Howell operates in the middle of the field?
If all of them are “no”, then the running back group may not make the leap many are hoping for. If any of those answers are “yes”, though, then UNC may have a historic season from their running backs.