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UNC vs. Texas A&M: X-Factor

How will the Tar Heels replace two All-Americans in the backfield?

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina
North Carolina Tar Heels running back British Brooks
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the four major opt-outs for the Orange Bowl, North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown was supportive of his players and optimistic for Saturday night, and beyond.

“We’ll know more about this team after this game, about what we’ve got to do to continue to grow next fall, and in the spring, than we do right now,” Brown said.

With Chazz Surratt, Dyami Brown, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams opting out of the Orange Bowl and preparing for the NFL, the All-ACC size hole on the Tar Heels will be tough to fill.

Brown and the coaching staff are nothing less than supportive of the players’ decisions to prepare for the next level. He said, “Our job is to help all of these young players ... and help them have better options when they get through with their their playing career here.”

Yet, even with this loss of talent on the field, as Brown said Monday, opportunity awaits.

But what it also does, it’s unexpected opportunities for other players. So we’ve told players all year that are saying, “Why aren’t I playing more? Why aren’t I playing more?” Prepare for the day that you’re going to get to play. And then here it is. So you better be ready. So on Saturday night, we’ve got to see who’s ready, who’s prepared, who’s done the things that we asked him to do every day even though they weren’t playing a lot to get themselves ready for that moment that’s unexpected when you’re thrown out there. And that’s what we’ll have on Saturday night.

Backup linebacker Eugene Asante will replace Surratt in the middle of the UNC defense.

Co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is confident in Asante’s accession to the position he was likely fill in 2021 anyways. Bateman’s concern is the two running backs for Texas A&M.

Everyone on the defense knew Asante was going in. He has been preparing and he is going to play really, really well. I promise you, my concern is not Eugene Asante. My concern is tackling 28 and 0.

Brown is confident in Asante, and knows that Jeremiah Gemmel will seamlessly step in as the leader of the defense.

For the wide receiver corps, Sam Howell will have plenty of targets with Dazz Newsome, Khafre Brown, Garrett Walston, Emery Simmons, Toe Groves, and Antoine Green.

Obviously, the vertical threat of Dyami is the most important component missing from the offense.

However, Khafre and Simmons both have receptions of over 50 yards this season.

Like Asante at middle linebacker, will one of these two receivers provide a glimpse of the vertical threat for next season? If Howell is able to sling the ball Saturday night, the chances are high.

With options to mitigate to loss of Surratt and Dyami, the X-Factor for the Orange Bowl is replacing All-Americans and All-ACC running backs Carter and Williams.

Carter and Williams accounted for 87 percent of the net rushing yards for Carolina this season. Howell made up another four percent, leaving only nine percent of the net rushing yards split between other players on the roster.

The fourth-leading rusher for UNC with 65 yards and one touchdown on the season, D.J. Jones, will not be available for the Orange Bowl with a lower body injury.

This leaves three running backs, Elijah Green, British Brooks, and Josh Henderson to provide the rushing attack for Carolina.

Green, a true freshman, was identified by Brown as one that is still adjusting to UNC’s system:

When you’re talking about a young back, Elijah wasn’t in an offense that threw the ball very much, he was in a power offense. So protections and the passing game is something that he’s got to continue to grow with and he’s such a great young man, he stays every day after practice, and works on catching the ball better.

Green made the most of his opportunities on the field against Western Carolina, gaining 43 yards on six carries, including a 15-yard run, and no loss of yards.

However, based on Brown’s press conference Green may be the third option or limited to power run situations:

Most of the time British and Josh Henderson have been taking the reps- the physical reps on Tuesday and Wednesday, so they’ve practiced all year. So, they know what to do. They’re very physical. And they’ll carry most of the load on Saturday night.

Brown provided some insight to how the Tar Heels practiced this year. Carter and Williams did not always practice during contact drills due to their heavy workload during games.

This is good news for Tar Heel fans, as it reduces concerns about finding some running backs and tossing them into the first team offense.

But what will be the running offense game plan?

This question was posed to Brown, and the head coach said it will be both “plug and play” and personnel-based.

When you listen beyond the coach-speak, this likely means that the passing game will determine the offensive rhythm, and Brooks and Henderson will play according to the situation.

A guess is that Henderson will provide the receiving dynamic to the backfield, while Brooks is relied upon for tough yards and pass protection.

There are many factors that will determine the outcome of this game, and if the defense cannot handle Kellen Mond and TAMU’s big offensive line, there will be desperation throughout the offense.

However, if the defense provides some stops, a Carolina offense that sees some success from its running backs will put the Tar Heels in a position to be Orange Bowl champions.