For months, Brandon Harris was hailed by many (including me) as UNC’s next quarterback. He seems like the perfect fit. A big dual threat QB with a rocket of an arm? Sounds like a match made in heaven. Perhaps it will be; as of now, our view of Harris is limited. Caught in a four-way QB battle, Harris has questions that he needs to answer, as do Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, and Logan Byrd, the others vying for the job. But it’s now two weeks into training camp and head coach Larry Fedora still has not announced the starter. It’s time to bring up the possibility of having someone not Brandon Harris starting on September 2nd.
Enter Nathan Elliott. He’s only thrown six career passes (he’s completed five of them though) but he excelled in the spring game, completing 8-of-12 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, Harris is good, but so is Elliott. They are the only two quarterbacks on the roster with any real experience, and the race will almost certainly come down to them.
Keep in mind that this is not the same kind of sad quarterback race you see with a couple of bottom-scraping NFL teams every offseason—it’s not like there’s no one on the team who can throw it farther than 30 yards. Seriously, Elliott and Harris are both more than capable of running Fedora’s high-paced offense. While it would be nice to have Mitch Trubisky back, this quarterback battle is something of a good problem.
And it is Elliott, a southpaw redshirt sophomore who put in his due time as Trubisky’s backup last year, who is taking first team reps in practice, while Harris is taking second team reps. That doesn’t mean particularly much, but this deep into preseason practice, it’s a sign from Fedora that he is confident with Elliott running the ship. Rightly so—with the second pick in the 2016 NFL Draft serving as his mentor, Elliott is aware of the nooks and crannies of this complicated offense. Knowledge could be Elliott’s greatest weapon for securing the starting job.
Elliott and Harris are vastly different players. In fact, they are close to opposites as far as play style goes. Elliott, as he touched on, is a low-mistake guy. He might not wow you every Saturday afternoon, but he won’t make many costly plays, either.
Meanwhile, Harris has all the physical tools in the world and will be good for fireworks, game in and game out, but the grad transfer has an accuracy issue that, according to Harris, stems from an issue with his footwork.
That contrast between playing style is both exciting and problematic. The skills these two guys bring to the table will take the team in very different directions, given Harris’ ground threat and Elliott’s efficiency. It’s already been determined that the offense will operate differently in 2017—the question is how different it will be?
The outcome for this quarterback battle is still very much up in the air. With his knowledge of the offense, it could very well be Elliott. Let’s assume that it is. What will that offense look like? Well, to put it bluntly, it would look like a poor man’s version of 2016’s (excessively) pass heavy offense. With Elliott on the field, the read option will not be there, just as it was not there with Trubisky. They could render the Tar Heels one dimensional if the creativity in play calling is not improved. This is the price that UNC will pay for efficiency, as Elliott will hardly throw any interceptions. It may not be pretty, but it’ll get the job done more times than not.
With that being said, expect growing pains. When this happens, don’t be at all surprised to see the return of some version of the two-quarterback that Larry Fedora has used in the past. This will (hopefully) not manifest itself as the one-series-in, one-series-out circus we saw in 2013, with snaps being split between Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams, but it would be a shame if Elliott ends up as the full-time starter with Fedora failing to utilize Harris’ read option game. Perhaps Harris could end up as a situational quarterback, sort of a variant on Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes.
Regardless, the quarterback situation will straighten itself out. It’s a rebuilding year, and UNC is setting up for another stretch of success. This QB battle will ultimately pay dividends for Elliott, as he is the future of UNC football, even if his time has not yet come. This is where he can take the next step. May the best man win.