As UNC transitions to rebuilding year, some players to watch
Posted October 6
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Nobody wants a rebuilding year, but it's time to accept that 2017 is just that for Tar Heel football. As I wrote last week, Carolina might have been able to weather the inexperience on the roster and put together a bowl resume. They might have been able to withstand the injuries had they been a deep, experienced team. But not both.
And so at 1-4 entering the first weekend of October, it's time to look toward 2018 and beyond.
It's baffling to compare the Tar Heels' depth chart from opening weekend to the one released this week ahead of Saturday's match-up with No. 21 Notre Dame. Six starters and a reserve from the initial two-deep are out for the season. Another, Jalen Dalton, has appeared in just two games. The Tar Heels' starting right tackle, Charlie Heck, is listed as the backup left tackle. That hand would be tough for any program to try to play. And yet, here we are, with seven games remaining in the regular season and positions that have to be filled.
If there is a silver lining (and there has to be, right?) it's that the Tar Heels are relatively young, and the injuries to regular players provide meaningful, live reps for the reserves, presumably the players who will be relied upon in the future.
“(On the) offensive and defensive sides of the ball, I've seen a lot of younger guys step up and just try to take control of their role,” said junior defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke. “You see guys on special teams like Tre Shaw and people on defense like Jordon Riley all over the map, just trying to step up and play their role and their position. They might not get the reps they wanted, but they're going to step up and contribute to the team right now.”
So with that in mind, here are six players for Tar Heel fans to watch in 2017 and, hopefully, to count upon in 2018.
A redshirt freshman, Hopper has appeared in the Tar Heels' last three games and has four tackles, including a first-quarter sack at Georgia Tech. Hopper moved from linebacker to defensive end in fall camp and has been impactful at a position of need.
“He’s doing a great job of taking the opportunity he gets, and when he gets that opportunity he’s making some plays,” head coach Larry Fedora said of Hopper. “I think he’s going to be fine.”
A true freshman defensive tackle from Durham Riverside, Riley made his debut against Duke two weeks ago. Riley has used his 6'6, 305-pound frame to pressure quarterbacks and has six tackles through his two games. Though the head coach said Riley needs to work on his pad level, Fedora was impressed with the January enrollee's motor in his debut against Duke.
A true freshman cornerback, Shaw has appeared primarily on special teams and has two tackles through five games. He impressed in fall scrimmages, however, and this coaching staff has a penchant for allowing players who sell out on special teams to work their way into more regular roles.
Michael Carter and Jordon Brown
The two revelations from the first five games of 2017 are the freshman Carter and the sophomore Brown at running back. With Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis no longer in Chapel Hill, Brown, whose 20 carries from a year ago represented less than 5 percent of the team's total, returned as the most experienced Tar Heel tailback.
Despite a patchwork offensive line, Brown and Carter have shown flashes of brilliance; Brown as a runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Carter in particular as a resilient yard-eater. Their 2017 seasons will be invaluable moving forward.
He's the present and future at quarterback. The redshirt freshman has emerged to take the starting role from graduate transfer Brandon Harris, and he's had both growing pains and flashes of brilliance.
But like Mitch Trubisky, Surratt is a Fedora recruit, brought to Chapel Hill to run the system that the head coach has employed to great scoring success at times. If he can stay healthy and not discouraged, he will return as a proven commodity next season, and with three more years of eligibility.