The narrative when discussing how UNC’s skill positions have changed from the 2016 season to the upcoming 2017 season is one of turnover—quarterback, wide receiver, and especially running back. With Mitch Trubisky gone, and Elijah Hood, and T.J. Logan drafted, there is a dearth of experience on the roster when it comes to running backs.
Inexperience doesn’t necessarily doom a player automatically. At the collegiate level, running back is perhaps the best position for raw athletes to shine the brightest. If you can find space and you’re fast enough a team is going to give you a chance.
In a traditional Larry Fedora offense, the team leans on the run game to set up the passing game. Will teams have to fear UNC’s run game?
Logan was UNC’s leading pass-catcher out of the backfield last season, racking up 244 yards on 29 receptions for three touchdowns. Logan was also the second-leading rusher last season, with a 120/650/7 statline there. Combined, Logan was the only player on UNC’s roster to score ten touchdowns, and he even added two more when returning kicks. Of all the tailbacks on the roster who will not be returning this season, Logan’s presence will be missed the most.
With a 145/858/8 line, Hood led the Heels in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns in more of a traditional halfback role. However, Hood also hauled in 25 catches out of the backfield for 142 yards, giving him exactly one thousand yards from scrimmage, second only to Ryan Switzer.
Graves, who led all rushers in the UNC spring game with 21 carries and scored the only rushing touchdown of the game, is supposedly no longer with the program. The team never made any official announcement, but he is not listed on the roster for the 2017 season. In late June, he tweeted this out:
The tweet quoted links to an article discussing UNC’s search for a lead back that doesn’t mention Graves. In the following days, Graves tweeted out “Whole new attitude at life” and “They’ll love you when you’re gone.”
Sophomore Jordon Brown (5’10’’, 195): In relief of Elijah Hood at the Sun Bowl last year against Stanford, Brown carried the ball three times for five yards and one touchdown—the only touchdown any running back currently on the UNC roster has scored for the Tar Heels. Brown is a true sophomore who carried the ball twenty times total last year but only racked up 45 yards. He did not suit up for the spring game.
Junior Jacob Schmidt (5’10’’, 190): Schmidt is a walk-on who led the team in rushing yards in the spring game with 70 before leaving late with an injury. That said, he rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown in the 2016 spring game and did not see the field last season.
Junior Antonio James (5’7’’, 180): James was the only other returning back who saw playing time in the spring game, with 30 yards on six carries.
Redshirt sophomore Johnathon Sutton (6’0’’, 230): Sutton is a converted linebacker who has impressed coaches during training camp. In terms of weight, Sutton is the bulkiest back on the roster.
Graduate Transfer Stanton Truitt (5’9’’, 185): Much like the quarterback position, the running back position is welcoming a graduate transfer from the SEC. Truitt comes to UNC from Auburn, where he was originally recruited as a wide receiver but moved to running back for the 2016 season. He carried the ball 31 times for Auburn last year, tallying 187 yards and two touchdowns, as well as seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. Fun fact: all three of his touchdowns came against Arkansas. Another fun fact: he has two years of eligibility remaining.
True Freshman Michael Carter (5’9’’, 195): UNC also welcomes the USA Today Florida Offensive Player of the Year, who enrolled at UNC in January 2017 after graduating early from high school. In his senior season, Carter stuffed the stat sheet with 3,345 all-purpose yards and 45 touchdowns, including seven in one game. He struggled in the spring game, however, with only 31 yards on nine carries while nursing an ankle injury.
True Freshman Kayne Roberts (6’3’’, 200): Roberts is a wild card. Recruited as an “athlete,” Roberts played both ways for his 1-A Tennessee high school, with 199 carries for 2,200 yards and 37 touchdowns on one side and 60 tackles, three interceptions, and two blocked field goals on the other side. Listed as a tailback, only time will tell how the Heels will use Roberts, but if it’s any indication, he rushed for a 48-yard touchdown in the second scrimmage of training camp. Important to note, though, is that he’s the tallest back currently on the roster.
The good news is that, should no one perform well enough to enter the draft early, the seven names listed above will all be at UNC in 2018. The bad news is that, combined, those same seven players have career totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and one touchdown (for UNC), and all of those stats are coming from one person.
The Heels will enjoy some long-term consistency in the backfield, but there will definitely be some short-term growing pains. Look for Fedora to keep the playbook a bit more simple to accomodate players either new to the collegiate game (Carter) or players getting used to a new playbook (Truitt). Also expect at least one misread on an option that ends in the ball hitting the grass.
Things won’t be particularly dour, as long as these backs can get into some space. Running between the tackles might be a bit too much to ask from a team that lacks size at the position. The team is also excited about the speed Carter has to offer, and speedy backs have performed very well at UNC in the past. But don’t be surprised if a quarterback ends up leading the team in rushing yards.
One Burning Question
Will there be a feature back?
Although Brown missed the spring game, he appears to have the inside track on the starting spot by virtue of his experience. Roberts and Sutton have seen significant playing time during scrimmages and training camp, while Truitt has experience outside of the program, and coaches are excited to see what they can do with Carter.
Out of the seven players listed above, look for Brown and Carter to lead the pack in terms of not only making plays but also getting the opportunity to make those plays. Truitt and Sutton will also see some time—look for Sutton to see the field in goal-line situations.
Seeing as there’s no obvious answer, there probably won’t end up being a feature back. As stated above, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for whoever wins the starting job at the quarterback position to lead the team in rushing yards or touchdowns, especially because everyone at the front of the pack in that race is a dual threat.
2017 will be interesting in the UNC backfield, but no matter what, those experiences this upcoming season will mean the position group will be that much better in 2018.