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UNC Football: Does the starting quarterback really matter?

UNC has started three different quarterbacks over the past five years. The offense never faltered.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State Spring Game Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina’s football team is full of questions as they prepare to begin fall practices. That’s what happens when a team has six players drafted into the NFL.

Perhaps the biggest question has centered around who will replace Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. The Heels already had young candidates in Chazz Surratt, Logan Byrd, and Nathan Elliott. The coaching staff also brought the experience of former LSU quarterback and graduate transfer Brandon Harris to Chapel Hill.

If you are someone who is deeply concerned about the QB battle that may transpire next month, then please lean in to your computer screen and listen closely.

Don’t worry about a thing.

This will be Larry Fedora’s fourth starting quarterback in six years. Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams, and Mitch Trubisky all started behind center from 2012-2016. All four of those QBs found offensive success while being surrounded by completely different skillsets and levels of talent.

If you’re not impressed, then please play a game. Below I’ve listed various, easy to understand, stats from the previous five years. They are not in chronological order. Can you select which QB was the primary start for each season?

Season

PPG

First Downs

Rushing Yards

Rushing YPC

Rushing TDs

Passing Yards

Passing Rating

Passing TDs

INTs

RZ% Success

Year 1

33.2

311

1968

3.97

26

3619

135.80

29

13

83.64

Year 2

40.6

292

2326

5.09

28

3501

150.30

29

7

80.95

Year 3

32.3

283

1896

4.73

21

3811

156.90

30

6

83.64

Year 4

40.7

335

3142

5.96

40

3675

159.4

31

10

88.84

Year 5

32.7

279

1928

3.93

19

3606

144.87

28

11

89.36

Before revealing the answers, there are two major takeaways in this chart.

Takeaway 1

In Larry Fedora’s offense, a successful running game directly correlates higher points per game. Both seasons that the Heels ran for over 2000 yards resulted in over 40 points per game.

You may argue that there are numerous factors that can affect this—turnovers, poor defensive outings that necessitate more possessions, or blow out wins that resulted in heavy run-based offensive drives.

In these instances, none of those arguments work. These rushing totals were achieved thanks to high "yards per carry" or YPC. Both seasons saw the running game average 5.09 and 5.96 YPC – well above the other three seasons.

Takeaway 2

The WORST offensive season for Fedora saw the Heels "only" average 32.3 points. In five years, with three different starting quarterbacks, UNC has never averaged less than 32 points. Using traditional scoring, that means an opposing team, at an absolute minimum, would have to score on five possessions to beat North Carolina.

Some of that is explained by a mix of high-scoring blow-outs and low(ish) scoring clunkers, right? Nope. Since 2012, UNC has scored less than 20 points only seven times. They have played 65 games. Fedora’s offense has succeeded no matter who is calling the plays.

(This also puts the defensive shortcomings in an unfortunate perspective).

So, who was the QB for each season?

Season & QB

PPG

First Downs

Rushing Yards

Rushing YPC

Rushing TDs

Passing Yards

Passing Rating

Passing TDs

INT

RZ% Success

2014 Williams

33.2

311

1968

3.97

26

3619

135.80

29

13

83.64

2012

Renner

40.6

292

2326

5.09

28

3501

150.30

29

7

80.95

2016

Trubisky

32.3

283

1896

4.73

21

3811

156.90

30

6

83.64

2015 Williams

40.7

335

3142

5.96

40

3675

159.4

31

10

88.84

2013

Ren/Will

32.7

279

1928

3.93

19

3606

144.87

28

11

89.36

Now knowing the season and the quarterback, there were a few more surprises. (Note: Williams became the starter during the 2013 season after Renner’s career was cut short with an injury)

Surprise #1

From an offensive standpoint, UNC arguably had their worst offensive season with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. While acknowledging that these topics usually require extreme nuance, this is still surprising. The lack of success in the red zone was troubling, but that can be explained by mysterious disappearing acts by Elijah Hood.

Marquise actually had a better rating during that surprising 2015 season than Trubisky had in 2016. The Heels also had the second fewest first downs of a Fedora-coached UNC team. (This helps explain the periodic offensive stagnation).

I honestly expected a different outcome from a team that currently has its entire offensive backfield and starting corps of wide receivers signed to an NFL roster.

Surprise #2

Bryn Renner’s 2012 was arguably the second best season of the five. Yes, second round draft pick Giovani Bernard was an excellent backfield mate, but he also missed two games that season. Fedora was Renner’s third head coach in three years, the Heels knew they faced a post-season ban, and his skillset was not exactly the best fit for the spread/HUNH offense.

He promptly led North Carolina to what would/should have been their first ACC Coastal Championship.

Surprise #3

No QB threw less than 28 touchdowns in any of the previous five seasons. In total, UNC has thrown 147 touchdowns in 65 games. They have only thrown 47 interceptions. That means the Heels have thrown approximately one interception for every three touchdowns. That’s good for any program. It is phenomenal for an offense that has used three quarterbacks in five years.

I am in no way trying to downplay the importance of the quarterback position. The Heels have been very fortunate to have had this run of QB talent come through Chapel Hill. However, all three of those quarterbacks possessed very different skillsets. The coaching staff adapted to each player. Larry Fedora’s offense is going to score points, no matter who is calling the plays.

Heading into this season, there are plenty of unknowns. Fortunately, "unknowns" are not necessarily "bad." The Heels have regularly answered the call and scored points. So, if you’re worried about Brandon Harris or any other potential Tar Heel quarterback, then place your anxiety elsewhere.

Might I suggest the running back position?