This was not the season that was expected from the North Carolina Tar Heels. Even with the questions on offense coming into the season, the worst record predicted by a writer at the Tar Heel Blog was 7-5.
The general consensus prior to the opener versus Cal was that the quarterback’s job was Brandon Harris’ to lose, although Chazz Surratt could find playing time due to Harris’ transition to a new playbook.
Fast forward to mid-November, Nathan Elliott earned the first start of his career and he took advantage of the opportunity by leading the Tar Heels to their first conference and Power Five win of the season.
With two to play, conventional wisdom suggests that Elliott is firmly in the driver’s seat and will finish out the season at quarterback. However, strange things can happen in a rivalry game to end the season, and if Surratt is healthy, he may make an appearance in the finale.
The Tar Heels are playing for pride at this point in the 2017 season, and much credit should be given to Coach Larry Fedora, the coaching staff, and the seniors for keeping the fight alive in the locker room.
In his weekly press conference, Fedora was asked directly if Elliott was “the guy” moving forward and into the future. Fedora’s response? “He’s got to be the guy this week.”
Part of that answer was football talk (“gotta play ‘em one week at a time”) and part of it was actual insight into the quarterback situation beyond the 2017 season.
The reality is that the fight for the 2018 quarterback job started once Elliott took the field in place of an injured Surratt in the Miami game. Now, UNC fans can dissect the factors that may separate the two players.
What are the areas that will make a difference in determining the advantage between Surratt and Elliott? Where can these quarterbacks improve in the offseason? Here is a breakdown of the early points of consideration.
Fedora showed his cards this week in his press conference. Asked about how a player could separate from the other for the starting quarterback job, he said “number one: take care of the football. Whoever takes care of the football gives them a big leg up on everybody.” Turnovers have been a factor in the offensive performance of the Tar Heels this season. Carolina is ranked 111th in turnovers lost, near the bottom of FBS.
Of the 14 interceptions thrown by UNC, eight were tossed by Harris, with Surratt and Elliott throwing three each. Elliott threw three against Miami in his first extended amount of live action on the collegiate level. Surratt threw one in three straight games against Duke, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame.
Against Pitt, the Tar Heels did not have any turnovers. Speaking directly about Elliott in that game, Fedora said, “his decision making process was good” and “he didn’t force anything.” As they say, good things happen when you take care of the football, and the turnover-free performance for UNC was certainly a factor in earning the victory.
On the season, Carolina has six fumbles lost. Surratt has put seven balls on the deck, and lost two of them. Surratt’s dual-threat capability is what makes him such an offensive threat. However, his contribution to a third of the fumbles lost by the team is an area of concern.
If Surratt is to lock up the starting job, he must be more careful with the football on the run and when scrambling behind the line of scrimmage. His running ability will be limited if he is unable to hold onto the ball.
For passing statistics, there is a much larger sample for Surratt. He is 105-181 for 1,284 yards, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He has completed 58 percent of his passes, good for a 7.09 yards per completion average. Surratt’s quarterback rating is 127.0.
His most efficient game was against Louisville. Surratt was 12-14 for 168 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw for consecutive 259-yard games against Old Dominion and Duke.
For Elliott in three total appearances, he is 36-73 for 408 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. His completion percentage is 49.3 and is averaging 5.59 yards per completion. Elliott’s quarterback rating is 101.6.
Accuracy is an issue for both quarterbacks, but for different reasons. Elliott has done a better job at going through his progressions. Too often during the season, there were Surratt throws that were forced and ended up in the turf or sailing above the receiver’s head.
On the other hand, Elliott’s weakness appears to be arm strength. Against Pitt, several passes were off the mark due to his high arcing throws. It may be too early to tell if this is a significant factor since it was his first start, but Surratt has showcased his arm strength is a couple of long bombs early in the season.
Both Surratt and Elliott were recruited as dual-threat quarterbacks, and each have used their legs to contribute to the offense this season. For Surratt, he has 84 carries for 151 yards and four touchdowns, including 56-yard TD scamper. Elliott has 32 carries for 79 yards.
The athleticism of Surratt gives him the early advantage as the collegiate dual-threat option. The explosiveness of some of his runs this year, most notably that 56-yard touchdown against Duke, shows how dangerous Surratt can be on the ground. However, there is room to improve.
As mentioned previously, Surratt’s biggest area of concern while running is turning the ball over. Another factor is not making things worse by trying to make something happen out of a broken play. Against Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Miami, Surratt has negative yards rushing. The worst of these came against Louisville on his scramble and fumble that was scored as a -30-yard rush. Through coaching and practice, Surratt will hopefully learn how to get rid of the ball or just take the sack.
It may be too early to determine whether or not Elliott can have designed run or option plays, or his running will be limited to scrambling or more conservative run plays. At the very least, his mobility will allow for plays to have an extra second or two to materialize or to gain a couple yards when there are no targets open.
The redshirt freshman Surratt was called upon early in the season to lead the UNC offense, and Mitch Trubisky’s backup from 2016 was left on the bench until late October. Surratt has thrown or ran on 265 plays this season, compared to Elliott’s 105 plays. Will the experience make a difference moving forward?
On Elliott, this is what Fedora said that he needs to do to improve and stay as QB1:
Continue to get better in every phase. Continue to lead. Continue to build the relationships he needs to on this football team.
This applies to any quarterback in the battle for the starting spot. More often than not, there are leadership qualities no one outside the locker room will see that will factor into the decision of Fedora and the coaching staff.
Keeping the competitive fire alive for the last two games will be something to look for as the season comes to a close. This not only applies to which player is on the field, but is a supportive teammate that is prepared to take snaps at a moment’s notice.
In the offseason, the amount of time in the film room and “sweat equity” deposited in the weight room may have a tremendous influence on the coaching staff leading up to the spring game.
Lost in the Surratt/Elliott debate is redshirt freshman quarterback Logan Byrd. The big, pro-style quarterback is a four star recruit with a strong arm.
With the injuries throughout the offensive line and receiving corps, the quarterbacks were hit and hurried with future targets. Could bad habits from a bad season hinder the growth of Surratt and Elliott? Did a season on the sidelines benefit Byrd more than being on the field during a best-case scenario 4-8 year?
There is no way of truly knowing the progress of Byrd until he steps on the field. If the past is any indication, expect Byrd to have an opportunity to compete for that starting spot when spring rolls around.
Nearly a month ago, Tar Heel Blog polled readers on who should be the starting quarterback for the rest of 2017, with most voting for Chazz Surratt.
Vote below for who you think will be Carolina’s starting quarterback next year and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Who will be the starting quarterback for UNC in 2018?
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