The injury bug has thrown a full uppercut at the Tar Heels offense, mainly on the offensive line and the wide receivers. This means younger, less experienced players are having to step up in those positions.
Enter North Carolina’s tight ends, Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker. This is the only position on the offensive side of the ball that hasn’t experienced a significant injury (Fritts did miss the ODU game with an undisclosed injury, but was back the next week). Both of these players have at least a year of experience in Larry Fedora’s offense and both are extremely capable in their abilities.
Fritts and Tucker have also become exponentially more important to a receiving corps that has lost Austin Proehl, Thomas Jackson, and Rontavious Groves (presumably all for the remainder of the season). They have also become more important in blocking schemes with the losses and injuries all across the offensive line.
Let’s look at the qualities both of these tight ends bring to this depleted offense. If you like gif-heavy articles, you’ll enjoy this as I’ve pulled many highlights from the first four games.
In just three games in 2017, Fritts has already surpassed his five-game 2016 injury-hampered season. However, he does much more than just catch passes. Being a dual-duty tight end, Fritts has provided key blocks in the rushing and passing games, and has used his route running abilities to draw defenders away from prime targets. Below are a few examples of Fritts’ all-around ability and usefulness in the offense.
We will begin with his pass-catching skills. On the season, Fritts has hauled in eight passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
On this play in the 1st quarter against Cal, Fritts is lined up as the h-back (a place he finds himself a lot) on the right side of the line, he shakes off contact from the defender and finds an opening across the middle. He catches the ball and scampers six more yards to pick up the first down.
We see a similar play against Louisville, except this time he takes the route straight down the field. He finds a soft spot right in the middle of five Louisville defenders and is able to haul in a pass that’s just a touch too high.
Fritts also has superb route running abilities as well. We can see him in the 3rd quarter against Cal lined up as the H-back. His job is to beat his defender (a linebacker) down the sideline. After contact, he is able gain separation. Surratt has to step up in the pocket and overshoots what would have been an easy touchdown.
Fritts’ route-running also opens up other options. Against Louisville, Fritts runs a beautiful post route. He holds on the seam pattern for around five yards until he clears the linebackers, then makes his cut across the middle of the field. This forces the safety to make the decision on who to guard. In this instance, Fritts already had two touchdowns and was deemed as the bigger threat. This opens a window just large enough for Harris to complete the throw for the touchdown.
He also has the ability to serve as a safety-valve for the quarterback. During the waning moments of the Duke loss, the Tar Heels, on 4th Down, needed 12 yards to extend the drive (and the game). Chazz Surratt was pressured as he had been all day. His primary targets were covered and it forced him to find his final option in Fritts, way behind the line to gain. Fritts showed his ability to make plays happen and earned the yards needed to get the first down.
One of the hardest things to gauge in football is blocking. It doesn’t show up on the stat line and it’s often overlooked. However, Fritts is an excellent run and pass blocker as well as a contributor on special teams.
On this Michael Carter touchdown, Fritts, in essence, blocked two defenders. This opened the outside of the field for Surratt to have the room to pitch it to Carter who took it in for the flashy score.
Here is Fritts pass-blocking, on back-to-back plays, during the Duke game. On the first pass, he was again coming out of the H-Back.
On the touchdown pass, however, he was lined up on the right side of the line. Both blocks were well executed and both plays went for big gains (and a momentum shift).
One of Fritts’ best blocking jobs came on the flea-flicker against Duke (again out of the H-Back). Fritts had to hold his block long enough for the hand-off, flick, and long pass. Needless to say, he made it look easy. (I’ve spared you from having to see the tackle that led to Proehl’s injury.)
On this special teams play, North Carolina needed something big to happen down by 13 against Louisville. Anthony Ratliff-Williams will get the credit, but Fritts and the rest of the return team had their hand in making it happen. Fritts gets just enough of a block to open a small hole for Ratliff.
Carl Tucker came onto the scene last season when Fritts was hampered with an injury. He was impressive with nine receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. We knew going into this season that he would get a fair share of snaps beside Fritts. Those snaps are now more important than ever.
Tucker isn’t used quite as much as Fritts, but he is still used in both the passing game (where he excels and has 34 more yards than Fritts), as well as the run and pass blocking schemes. He really got to shine as the primary tight end during the ODU game while Fritts was out with an injury.
Notice how Tucker locates the ball and times his jump and catch. Also, notice his ability to bring in the catch after a little bit of a juggle.
Here’s another Tucker catch. He’s lined up on the right side of the offensive line, but runs a simple seam route and finds a soft spot in the defense. He’s able to take a hit and stay on his feet to pick up a good chunk of yards before being tackled from behind.
Tucker has a certain toughness about him. He is able to take the big hits and keep on moving. Here you will see him take the hit from three defenders but still hold onto the ball for a big first down near the goal line.
Tucker is also used in the run and pass blocking schemes, as seen below.
Here he is lined up on the right side of the offensive line against Duke. He holds his outside block long enough for Surratt to get off a pass. (I’ll spare you from having to see Groves’ injury again.)
On this play, Tucker is lined up as the H-Back. He, along with Michael Carter, makes a great block freeing up Jordan Brown for a nice gain.
If the Tar Heels hope to turn this season around, Fedora will need to rely on Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker in multiple situations.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see more two tight end sets with either of them blocking with a depleted offensive line or running more routes with a decimated receiving corps, as seen above.
Here, both Fritts and Tucker are lined up on the right side of the line, with Fritts back to the H-Back. Fritts runs a route across the middle of the field. Tucker runs a simple seam route. Both were open as Fritts makes his way through the contact and Tucker beats his man off the line.