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UNC’s youth is starting to catch on

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Young skill position players on both sides of the ball impressed against Pittsburgh.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Writing this feels so much better after a win. It’s a good time for Carolina fans, as the losing streak to Power 5 opponents finally ended with a victory against Pittsburgh. Carolina is obviously done this season, but it’s these games that will help set the right mentality for next season.

And what does Carolina have next season? A couple of the biggest names in the program belong to seniors, including M.J. Stewart, Austin Proehl, Cayson Collins, Dajaun Drennon, Donnie Miles, and Bentley Spain. Last year’s departures left a lot of holes to be filled on offense, and for a while, UNC was unsuccessful in filling them. This year’s departures will skew heavily on the defensive end. Next year, UNC will depend on the continued development of the offensive pieces that have just started showing up, and a few guys on defense stepping up to replace their teammates.

Against Pittsburgh, it was, surprisingly enough, the offense that shouldered a lot of the burden. Part of that was human highlight reel Anthony Ratliff-Williams, whom I could write an article about all on his own but we’ve covered him enough here. I’ll just leave this for you:

But a lot of other guys stepped up, too. The two running backs, Jordan Brown and Michael Carter, have done a lot of good things over the course of the season, and once the offense becomes more dynamic, they will be extremely valuable. Brown flashed this value on UNC’s final drive, where he essentially iced the game away on his own:

ACC Digital Network

So here, Larry Fedora has Nathan Elliot throw a screen into the Narduzzi blitz. It’s a playcall that a lot of coaches like and one that had worked earlier in the game, so it was a nice, safe call to get some breathing room, at the very least. Brown has natural hands and doesn’t need to slow down or adjust his feet to catch the screen, which helps the play not be broken. R.J. Prince does a good job creating the first down yardage with a big clearout block, and Cam Dillard escorts Brown until about the 25, where he just isn’t fast enough to keep up. No shame in that, offensive linemen aren’t supposed to be faster than running backs.

Brown really takes over on this play at that point. He first makes the mature decision to cut back inside and ensure that he stays in bounds, though this is made easy by the Pittsburgh defender’s hips facing the sideline and giving Brown the inside of the field. Brown then anticipates Jordan Whitehead coming over, braces, and creates contact instead of accepting it, getting another 3 yards after the hit. This play shows a combination of pass-catching ability, speed, agility, and grit that teams covet in running backs.

Two plays later, it’s 2nd and 18 for the Heels. Throwing the ball is risky, so they decide to continue to run out clock and pin Pittsburgh deep with very little time remaining.

Ha! No, they don’t. They draw up an aggressive run design, fully intending to make this drive the game’s last. Brown is still on the field. UNC does this:

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UNC sends everybody playside on this running play, trusting Brown to have the speed to beat the backside defenders’ pursuit angles. He does so with ease, and the first down is basically free from there thanks to a great seal by Brandon Fritts and another solid block by Prince. Then Brown, again, creates contact, deciding to run through #20 instead of around him this time, and getting about 4 yards by running him over. Again, Brown’s speed and physicality really shine.

And here’s the play that truly seals it:

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The Pittsburgh defenders don’t even try to take angles on Brown this time, either. The offensive line stops penetration , Brown turns because they don’t think there’s a safe enough angle that would prevent the first down or because they remember Brown burning them 3 plays earlier. The offensive line stops penetration, Brown turns the corner, game over.

Brown’s running mate Michael Carter had his own moments. Besides his 4th-and-1 conversion on a toss play (eep), he had this:

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Obviously the big thing about this play is Carter’s awareness to know that he was on top of a defender and therefore not down yet. Getting up from that position and resetting enough to be able to fight through contract for three yards and get the first down is a very impressive display of balance and strength. Note how Carter uses his feet to prop himself up. The run up to that point is impressive, too, as Carter gets skinny through the lane and gets to top speed very quickly.

The two running backs have shown traits that will make them very good backs sooner rather than later, and as soon as the passing attack opens up, they have the ability to run all over the ACC. So when is that going to happen?

Well, first of all, UNC needs a QB. There’s no guarantee that happens; Elliot doesn’t have the requisite arm to consistently run Fedora’s offense, Chazz Surratt needs to rebuild confidence in himself and his line, and Jace Ruder will be a true freshman. I have faith that something will work out, but this year, it hasn’t happened, and the receivers have been thrust into the proverbial fire. We finally saw some of the youngest players show their playmaking ability and potential on Thursday, giving hope for what they can do with a full season under their belts. You can feel free to watch Ratliff-Williams’ video again now, but I’d like to point out Dazz Newsome, who besides getting open and getting catches down the field, did this:

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The open field spin move. The 6 broken tackles. The awareness of the first down marker. This is an extremely athletic play, but it’s also an extremely intelligent one. Newsome makes his cuts not just to make his defenders miss, but also to set up his blockers. At the tail end of his run, he runs towards the sideline to give #88 the space he needs to create the window that Newsome in turn needs to dive for the first down. Newsome has been making plays as a runner all year, but this one is particularly exciting because it showcases broken field ability and not the pure speed he’d flashed before.

With an influx of talent at the receiver position coming next year, it looks like UNC’s skill positions are set to once again be top-quality. It remains to be seen what the team can do with them next year. There won’t be excuses this time.