This year will be a new challenge for Larry Fedora and UNC. Following the 2016 season, virtually every key starter in North Carolina’s offense left the program, leaving more questions than answers in terms of what to expect this season. Fedora himself was far from shy in admitting the unique challenge on this week’s edition of the Carolina Insider Podcast. He said that he has never experienced this huge of a loss in production from any of his teams in his entire career as a head coach.
We still don’t know who will start at quarterback. Fedora is keeping the competition wide open, and probably won’t announce who the starter will be until close to the Cal game (or possibly the day of). In terms of who that quarterback will be throwing to, there is a little bit more clarity in regards to what to expect. Two seniors for UNC are likely to lock down starting positions, with the extra wide receiver spots open for competition.
Switzer finished his senior year with 96 catches for 1,112 yards with 6 touchdowns, finishing his UNC career as the all-time leader in career receptions with 244. Switzer also holds the school records for career receiving yards (2,907), career punt return yards (1,082), career punt return touchdowns (7) and single-season receptions (96 in 2016). Ryan Switzer was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Following Mack Hollins suffering a season-ending injury last year, Bug Howard became Mitch Trubisky’s second favorite target on the field. Howard did little to disappoint, as he finished his senior season with 827 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 15.6 yards per play, which was good enough for the second highest average behind only Mack Hollins himself. Howard was one of six UNC players that went undrafted in the NFL Draft, but later signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent.
One of the harder injuries to deal with last year was to Mack Hollins, who only played seven games before suffering a season-ending collarbone injury in a 20-13 win against Miami last October. While Bug Howard proved to be a good replacement, one can only imagine what could have been had Hollins been healthy for the entire season.
Hollins already had 16 catches for 309 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 19.3 yards per game. At the rate he was going, you have to imagine he could have contended with Switzer as the top receiver for the 2016 season. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Eagles saw enough to take Hollins in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
Austin Proehl, 5’10, 175, SR — 43 NO., 597 YDS, 13.9 AVG, 3 TD, 46 LG, 45.9 AVG/G
Thomas Jackson, 5’11, 185, SR — 17 NO., 186 YDS, 10.9 AVG, 4 TD, 34 LG, 14.3 AVG/G
When looking at this year’s wide receivers, senior Austin Proehl should be front and center. He is the son of Ricky Proehl, who played 17 seasons in the NFL and is currently the wide receivers coach for the Carolina Panthers.
Proehl had a rather productive year his junior season, as he finished with 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns, averaging just about 45.9 yards per game which was good for third best on the team. Proehl is a very capable weapon for whoever ends up being the starting quarterback, possessing the speed, agility, and hands to make big plays throughout the season.
Another player to watch out for is former walk-on Thomas Jackson. Jackson is a sure-handed receiver out of Charlotte, North Carolina who was targeted 18 times his sophomore season and had 17 catches for 186 yards and four touchdowns. Going into his junior year, he is primed to become a prominent piece of the offense and perhaps one of the better receivers in the ACC as a whole.
When looking at the rest of the depth chart, there is a lot of talent and not enough starting spots to go around. Sophomore Juval Mollette performed well during the spring game, finishing with seven catches 100 yards and three touchdowns. Former quarterback-turned-wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams is another player that has a good chance of separating himself from the pack and getting a decent amount of playing time. Offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic also highlighted freshmen Beau Corrales and Dazz Newsome as standouts in the wide receiver core when he spoke on Larry Fedora’s radio show Tuesday.
When it comes to the wide receiver core, UNC fans can certainly sleep easy knowing that there is no shortage of talent at this position. While there won’t be a great deal of in-game experience under Larry Fedora past Proehl and Jackson, there are definitely enough toys for the future starting quarterback to play with. This will likely be a fun group of guys to watch starting next Saturday.