The 2016 football season should be considered a disappointment for both fans and players alike. After the promise that 2015 brought to the program, handing the ball to Mitch Trubisky made success almost seem inevitable. While he was arguably the best quarterback in the country through a good portion of the season, the team as a whole failed to live up to expectations. Losing to Duke and NC State sunk their Coastal Division aspirations, but the loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl really forced down the final nail in the coffin of the great season that could have been.
Worst of all was the fact that this was the team’s best chance to really compete. The end of the 2016 season marked the end of Larry Fedora’s first recruiting class with North Carolina. As easy as it might be able to say there’s always next year, with this team, there really wasn’t. The team’s impressive offense is being stripped down with wide receivers Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard, and running back T.J. Logan all graduating. The defense, which turned out to be a strength in the end, is losing cornerback Des Lawrence, safety Dominique Green, and defensive end Mikey Bart. The troubled offensive line will take a hit as center Lucas Crowley and offensive guard Caleb Peterson both leave. Even kicker Nick Weiler is gone.
All this turnover is before Trubisky even makes a decision about the NFL Draft. While the junior play caller is likely to turn pro, the program is still waiting to hear his final word before turning to what alternatives they have waiting on the bench. It’s hard to see the 2017 season as much more than a rebuild year while they wait for new players to step up and take on new roles. No matter what happens next year, though, at least the blow will be softened a bit by the return of running back Elijah Hood and cornerback M.J. Stewart. The two had the option to declare, but decided to stay on campus for their senior years—decisions that will greatly benefit Carolina.
While Hood’s season didn’t end up being a complete disaster, it was not the year that anyone saw coming. After starting the season off slowly, he left the game against the Seminoles with what later turned out to be a concussion. Considered one of the team’s greatest offensive weapons, Hood only managed to play in 11 of the team’s 13 games this season. While his 5.7 average receiving yards per reception was right there with his 2015 season, his 5.9 average rushing yards per reception was well below his 6.7 mark the year before.
His decision to return becomes more obvious when you consider if he was ever fully healthy the rest of the way. After the concussion, he missed the next game, which was the Virginia Tech game in the hurricane. At times he looked like his old self, but there were definitely signs that something was just still not right. When he made his announcement, it went hand-in-hand with his decision to stay out of the Sun Bowl for health reasons:
“I’m disappointed I cannot be with my football brothers for the bowl game in Texas, but it’s best for me to stay home and fully recover. I look forward to returning to the field in 2017 for my senior year and having the opportunity to represent UNC along with my teammates. I appreciate Coach Fedora and the staff for helping me make the best decision for my future.”
Staying out of the Sun Bowl was an obvious call if he was still feeling the effects of his injury. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he still experienced symptoms, and it should be considered a minor miracle that he was even able to return to the field like he did. In this condition, it’s hard to see what NFL teams would make of his performance over the season and going forward, so the decision to return makes sense.
Joining Hood is junior cornerback M.J. Stewart, who had one of the more unheralded seasons on the Tar Heels. In 2016, he outshone Des Lawrence by leading the team with 11 pass breakups and finishing with 66 tackles. He now ranks third all-time in UNC history with 29 pass breakups over his first three seasons and was an honorable-mention All-ACC selection in 2016.
Coming off that success, Stewart evaluated his options for next year’s draft and whether he should forego his final year of eligibility by declaring. He must have ultimately determined that the interest wasn’t there, so he announced his intention to return to campus for the 2017 season:
“After gathering as much information as possible and discussing the situation with my family, I have decided to return to Carolina for my senior season. I appreciate Coach Fedora and the staff for their guidance throughout this process and I look forward to being a senior leader next season. It’s an honor to represent UNC and compete for a championship with my teammates.”
The Tar Heels will benefit greatly from his return because he won’t leave them without a starting cornerback for next year. In the end, if he is able to built off his success from this season, Stewart should have no problem drumming up interest from NFL teams.
We all know that these kids were tasting a shot at the pros, however, by returning for another season, they will provide North Carolina with much needed strength and leadership during a time of uncertainty. They will also have an opportunity to improve, recover, and—hopefully—raise their draft stock.