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UNC vs Western Carolina: Three things learned

This team is in a good spot for the future.

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC beat an FCS opponent. By a lot. Even in a down season, that is expected of a Power Five team. There’s nothing groundbreaking that we can learn from this, but we can learn a few things for next season.

There’s Still Fight

Playing a team you are expected to easily beat usually doesn’t allow one to glean a lot. When that win comes as only your third win during a disappointing season, you learn a lot about the heart and integrity of your players. It’s easier to just give up and go through the motions, but for a team that has endured as many hardships as North Carolina football has this season, there’s still a palpable sense of heart and determination to finish on a high note.

Sometimes during tough seasons, stories and rumors come out of the locker rooms that would make the average fan upset. Not so from this squad. The team has seemingly come together, closer than ever before. They have rallied around Nathan Elliot as he has led the team to two victories in as many weeks.

If this same tenacity can be recreated next season, this team has the chance and the capabilities of being something special.

Playmakers are there for next season

You may have already thought this, but last weekends’ performance solidified it.

Sure this team is losing players like M.J. Stewart, Austin Proehl, DaJuan Drennon, and Bentley Spain. The fact is that there are many playmakers on both sides of the ball that will return next season. Many of them have been thrust into the spotlight before they were intended because of the injuries, and now they are finally showing their true potential.

Offensively, this team will be the exact opposite of what it faced entering this season. We will see the return of most of this year’s offensive production. The running backs are probably the most stable position with stars Michael Carter and Jordan Brown set to lead the backfield next season while Jonathan Sutton will continue to be the relief. Receivers Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dazz Newsome came onto the scene when top target Proehl went down.

Rontavious Groves and Thomas Jackson were set to shine, but injuries derailed their seasons. Having them back next season will be another big return. Tight ends Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker performed well throughout the season. Tucker was lost to injury as he was coming into his own and Jake Bargas became a reliable stop-gap.

Defensively, the Tar Heels find themselves bringing back top talent across the board. On the line, we will see the return of big playmakers Jalen Dalton, Tomon Fox, and Jeremiah Clarke. Dalton batted down two passes during the Western Carolina game. Linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith are set to return.

Losing and replacing Cayson Collins will not be an easy task, but Jonathan Smith’s three sacks against Western Carolina shows that he could ease the transition. The secondary will also have the return of play makers from this season. Safeties Miles Dorn and J.K. Britt, and cornerbacks Patrice Rene and K.J. Sails will be another year older with plenty of feet-to-the-fire experience.

2018 will begin with another quarterback battle

Next season will begin in the exact same place as this season, with the Tar Heels trying to figure out who will be the number one quarterback. Gone will be graduate transfer Brandon Harris, but that doesn’t mean Surratt is the heir apparent.

Sophomore (third string) quarterback Nathan Elliot came in for an injured Surratt during the Miami game and he hasn’t looked back. Since then, he’s gone 54-98 passing, 648 yards, and seven touchdowns along with three interceptions. Although his throws can seem to have a low velocity, he’s shown the ability to be very accurate at times. He is willing to stand in the pocket long enough to deliver the throw. There have also been a few times where he has shown the ability to tuck the ball and run (although he is not the runner Surratt is).

The fact is, he has earned the right to enter camp next year as a front-runner to the starting job. This could spark another great camp battle and should push Surratt to become better. Logan Byrd, Manny Miles, and recruit Jace Ruder could all make it interesting as well.