I found myself watching an LSU game on a warm, early fall Saturday afternoon in 2015. I forget exactly who it was they were playing, but that’s unimportant—it was the mesmerizing quarterback who mattered. I didn’t even know the guy’s name then, but it was Brandon Harris. Man, did I think he was good. A swift, no-nonsense motion with a rifle of an arm, poise under a collapsing pocket, long and shifty strides after breaking containment. And I was right—he is good. He’s really good, and now he’s UNC’s quarterback.
It’s a shame, really—okay, it’s definitely not a shame for us Carolina fans—but Harris’ talent was largely squandered under Les Miles’ ground-heavy, antiquated offense. Without much creativity on the offensive side, Harris was bottled up while LSU’s talented backfield took toss after toss and handoff after handoff.
The third-ranked dual-threat QB coming out of high school, Harris was rightfully frustrated—he shed some light on the issue after he signed with the Heels.
“[Fedora’s] way to adapt a quarterback...he runs the offense. He assured me I was going to throw it more than 16 times a game and maybe even during the first quarter,” he said in a parting interview with Baton Rouge-based publication The Advocate.
You’re darn right you’ll throw it more than 16 times a game.
After Mitch Trubisky orchestrated the best season a quarterback has ever had at UNC, throwing for a school record 30 touchdowns on 3748 passing yards, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the quarterback situation until Harris signed. I stressed out over it myself. Not that I don’t have faith in backup Nathan Elliot, but I’ve been so spoiled by the likes of Trubisky and Marquise Williams that not having All-ACC and All-America caliber quarterbacks stresses me out. But I’m not stressed anymore. Harris is our guy.
Let’s break it down.
Fedora’s offense in 2016 lagged from time to time. The zone read with Trubisky was just not there like it was with Marquise Williams in 2015. Take a look at the numbers: in 2015, Williams threw 356 times for 3068 yards and ran 158 times for 948 yards. In 2016, Trubisky threw 447 times for 3748 yards and ran 93 times for just 308 yards. That lack of a serious dual-threat quarterback hurt.
In a spread option, you need a quarterback who can, well, option. Williams and Harris are similarly sized with similar skill sets (Williams is 6’2, 216 and Harris is 6’3, 218), so we’ll be getting that back in 2017. And yes, UNC has lost almost all of their best offensive players, so expect him to take on a heavier load this year and juke and spin and truck defenders all year on his way to the end zone.
Harris is a crisp passer. His concise motion is a thing of beauty, as are the bullets he delivers into his receivers’ chests. He has beautiful touch on the home run ball and drops dimes on end zone fades and crossing routes. And we all know the value of the end zone fade (looking at you, Pitt).
Consistency could be the biggest issue. See, something strange and troubling happened to Harris’ passing game in late 2015. He was kickin’ some tail for most of the year until the Tigers ventured to Tuscaloosa and lost to Alabama, 30-16. Before the Alabama game, Harris was dealing: nine touchdowns, zero interceptions, 153.8 passer rating, three rushing touchdowns. After Alabama: four touchdowns, six interceptions, 110.6 passer rating, zero rushing touchdowns.
Harris threw a costly interception against the Crimson Tide and completed just six of his 19 passes, and he never really recovered. Those crossing route bullets and end zone fades came out shakier. He made poorer decisions, often missing open receivers. What happened, and do I know why? No. Chalk it up to the Bama Effect, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing, this is NOT reflective of his potential.
I’ll also tell you another thing: Les Miles and LSU fans all across the country will be kicking themselves for wasting such a marvelous player. When he was pulled out of the game against Wisconsin in 2016—the last game he played for LSU—I was watching. He had been bad ever since his first encounter with the Crimson Tide. He deserved to get pulled. But what he faced at LSU was, judging from the aforementioned interview in The Advocate, as much a mental issue as anything. He was not allowed to spread his wings in Baton Rouge, especially with some guy named Leonard Fournette sharing the backfield.
In Chapel Hill, this will be Brandon Harris’ team. He’ll have all the room he needs to spread his wings. He has what a Larry Fedora quarterback must have: the running ability, the long ball, the toughness. Be excited about that and about his intangibles. Get ready to see Brandon Harris put on a show every Saturday this Fall.