Let’s start with the good news: the Tar Heels are returning a running back room that is as deep as we have seen it in quite some time. Mack Brown is likely not having a fun time right now deciding who is going to be the starter in a few weeks, though if I had to guess, British Brooks will likely get the nod at least for the first game against Florida A&M. The bad news, of course, is that none of these running backs have a substantial resume to back up what they are able to do in the college ranks, though Brooks, D.J. Jones, and Caleb Hood did get a non-zero amount of snaps throughout the 2021 season.
So, what exactly should we expect from a position that is in next man up mode? Let’s take a look at who Mack Brown lost, who he kept, who just arrived in Chapel Hill, and then I will give my thoughts on what we can anticipate as the season progresses.
Star running back Ty Chandler led the team in rushing last season, barely edging out former quarterback Sam Howell. That is of course a very tongue-in-cheek statement, as Howell was unusually good in the ground game during his final season, but Chandler really did have a very good season as the team’s lead back. He finished the season with 182 rushing attempts for 1,092 yards, 13 touchdowns, and averaged six yards per run. In the passing game Chandler wasn’t very effective, only totaling 216 yards and a touchdown, but keeping defenses honest on the ground was what he exceled at.
Following the season, Chandler was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. While we don’t know how much he will see the field this season, we do know that UNC lost a lot of production with his exit. Thankfully this next group of guys have returned to fill the void.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, British Brooks will return for his junior season with the Tar Heels, and it’s very likely that he is the starter at least for the first game of the season. He was impressive in November last season, and was especially productive yardage-wise in his 124-yard performance against NC State. He also ran the ball five times against South Carolina in the Duke Mayo Bowl for 72 yards and a touchdown, so of all of the returning backs, he is definitely the one that has proved the most in live action.
The other two running backs worth noting are D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood. Jones got to show off his skills against Florida State last season with his 60-yard performance, but for the season overall never saw the end zone. As for Hood, he also had a 60+ yard performance, but this particular game was against Virginia. The big difference between these two backs is that Jones was utilized in the passing game, which begs the question of whether or not that is something Mack Brown is considering when looking at the order of the depth chart. Oh, and then there’s sophomore back Elijah Green who according to UNC’s staff may be the most improved player out of the returning players. Needless to say, Brown has options.
These four backs could rotate throughout the season, especially if health issues start to pop up. While this seems simple/reasonable enough, there are more backs that have arrived on campus that could have a say in how things play out.
There are two freshmen running backs that could see some playing time this season if they are able to bust through the glass ceiling. The first name to get to know is George Pettaway, who is a 5’11, 190-lb back from Suffolk, VA. He was the eighth-best running back in the 2022 class, and was the 99th-best football player overall.
Pettaway is an intelligent back that has good burst and acceleration. His usage in high school wasn’t extremely high due to his four-game junior season, so he should have some of the fresher legs on the team. According to a program source, he is the most explosive back on the team, so we could see Phil Longo use him occasionally when needing a back to break out for big yardage.
The other newcomer for the Tar Heels is 6’0, 220-lb back Omarion Hampton. Hampton is a North Carolina product out of Clayton, and was the 11th-best running back in the 2022 class. Hampton is a bruiser on the field who is really good at gaining yards after contact. What helps him is his strong lower body, which gives him a tremendous amount of power when breaking through tackles. If there is anybody that could directly compete with British Brooks in terms of skill set, this is where Mack Brown could look deeper into the season should he decide he wants to give another power back a try.
UNC has a great problem on their hands, as they have as deep of a running back group as any team could possibly hope for. Truly there are a few running backs that could start at any point during the season, but more importantly a good amount of them should see plenty of playing time throughout the season. Phil Longo is likely somewhere drooling while looking at his playbook and dreaming about all of the possibilities with this group. They are likely going to be used early and often, because whoever ends up starting at the quarterback position will need a little help in early yardage situations until they can get acclimated to live game action.
If there’s any nits to pick, I don’t know that there is a Michael Carter or a Javonte Williams on this team right now, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t get really close as the season progresses. Truly I think this group will get the job done this season, so let’s hope the passing game is up to the challenge of matching their production.