Longtime Rice coach Jess Neely is said to have once remarked, “If you have two starting quarterbacks, then you don’t have one,” a phrase that has become an adage of football coaching. Based on the last few years, Larry Fedora doesn’t really buy it.
We first saw Fedora flout this wisdom in 2014, when freshman Mitch Trubisky and Marquise Williams spent the preseason competing for the starting quarterback job. Williams won, of course, but Fedora liked Trubisky so much that he pretended the competition was still going on through the first half of the season, giving Trubisky every 3rd drive or so to drive up some controversy and give the freshman some live snaps.
This was not good for the team, who went 2-3, including a 70-41 embarrassment against East Carolina, while the carousel was going on. Trubisky never played consecutive meaningful series, so he was never able to get into rhythm, but that was enough to disrupt Williams, so the switching made both quarterbacks worse. Once Fedora finally conceded the job to Williams, UNC took then-sixth-ranked Notre Dame down to the wire in a 50-43 loss, displaying a quality of play that hadn’t even been hinted at until then.
The Heels proceeded to rip off four wins in their next five games, scraping themselves to bowl eligibility in a season that had appeared lost. It seemed obvious at the time that not naming a quarterback at the beginning of the season had hurt a team that needed offensive leadership, especially with a defense that everybody knew would offer little resistance.
But it made sense, even if some didn’t agree with it. Trubisky was one of Fedora’s first marquee recruits since he had come to UNC and would have been his first recruited starting quarterback, while Williams had been the backup quarterback of the previous regime. There were things about Trubisky that stood out even then, primarily his accuracy in the short and intermediate passing game both standing still and on the run, that must have been attractive.
Additionally, the reasoning of giving Trubisky some game experience even if he wouldn’t end up starting is, if not sound, then reasonable. In hindsight, Trubisky clearly benefited from the playing time he had from 2014-15: In limited time in 2014, he was a very boom-or-bust QB, with an astonishingly high turnover rate. As a starter in 2016, he rewrote UNC’s record books. On the other hand, Williams had already played in and won meaningful games, having replaced Bryn Renner at the end of 2012. He was familiar with his teammates and had chemistry with his receivers. And he had some skills, too: he was a powerful runner with good vision and had an excellent deep ball, although his short and intermediate accuracy wasn’t very good.
Most importantly, the offense looked comfortable with him at quarterback. His experience allowed him to stay calm in pressure situations and deliver, and his teammates followed him. It was no surprise to anybody that he opened the season starting for UNC, nor when he took the job full-time.
Fast forward to 2017. Two games in, the quarterback situation actually looks much more fluid than it did in 2014; graduate transfer Brandon Harris started the season getting the share of snaps that Williams took in 2014, but redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt stepped up to play most of the second half of the opener against Cal. Surratt played the entire first half against Louisville, then went out due with a mild injury and did not come back, as Harris finished the game.
It was inevitable that people would compare the two situations. However, a lot of the comparisons out there are pretty lazy. Harris, in theory, has a similar profile to Williams: Big arm, powerful and decisive runner, inaccurate passer. This, along with his age, has likely colored perceptions of how to view this year’s battle, with people comparing Harris to Williams and therefore Surratt to the talented, but error-prone freshman Trubisky. But Harris isn’t where Williams was as a quarterbacking option; he’s not even particularly close.
For one thing, Williams had been with UNC for two years. Like I said before, he knew his teammates and had abundant reps with them. This is Harris’ first year at UNC, so even though he has experience as an NCAA quarterback, he’s starting from scratch when it comes to running the UNC offense. And it comes out on the field: Against Cal, the offense was a non-presence with Harris playing: He made bad decisions, missed throws at bad times, and had no rhythm.
Against Louisville, he looked better, settling down a little bit and finding some chemistry with Austin Proehl, but the offense still wasn’t running smoothly until he was in hurry-up mode and Louisville was playing soft. He may be the more experienced quarterback, but he is not playing like an experienced quarterback, so that defeats the purpose of having an experienced starter. Remember the Georgia game last year, where senior Greyson Lambert started for the Bulldogs before being replaced by freshman Jacob Eason because Lambert was making inexperienced mistakes? That's the kind of veteran that Harris is, so starting him for "veteran leadership" is not a valid argument like it was for Williams.
In fact, Surratt might have a claim to have more experience with the UNC system after redshirting with the program for a year. The offense certainly looks more comfortable with him taking snaps
Even if we're just going by skills, Harris doesn't have the same kind of uniqueness that Williams did. He has displayed a stronger arm that Surratt has to this point, but he does not look as comfortable as an option ball-carrier as he needs to. He doesn't even look as decisive as Surratt does. His spotty accuracy doesn't help him here, either, because it creates very dangerous situations when combined with his poor decision making. Surratt isn't a pinpoint passer, either, but takes care of the ball, giving him the clear advantage.
And then, of course, there's the youth argument, which hasn't changed: Surratt is the future of the program, so why not let him take his lumps now?
In summary, there are three primary points that differentiated Williams and Trubisky. Then, two of the three favored Williams, so he started. Now, all three favor Surratt. Fedora doesn't even have the recruiting excuse anymore, because he recruited both guys to UNC. All in all, it's time to end the nonsense. Chazz Surratt deserves to be the undisputed starter, for the sake of UNC's present and future.