CHAPEL HILL — With the departure of every offensive leader, spring practice at North Carolina was a time to find some new stars.
There wasn’t a lot of clarity about who would take over at quarterback for the NFL-bound Mitchell Trubisky during a spring scrimmage dominated for much of Saturday by the Tar Heels’ defense.
“They’ve made a lot of progress but I wouldn’t say that anybody separated themselves,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of the quarterback race. “We’ll get into the summer and get into fall camp and if somebody separates themselves at that time, we’ll make a decision. I’m not anywhere close to making a decision.”
In the 26-possession scrimmage at Fetzer Field that pitted the offense against the defense using a point system, the defense won 80–70 after leading 43–23 at halftime. The defense forced quite a few three-and-outs and benefited from a number of dropped balls.
Sophomore Nathan Elliott (top photo), who completed 8 of 12 passes for 213 yards and three TD passes in seven possessions, stood out among the quarterbacks Saturday.
“They all look good,” said defensive end Dajuan Drennon, who had five tackles and three sacks. “So far they’ve all been impressive to me. They’re all getting the ball to the receivers and doing what they need to do.”
Although he is the only quarterback on the roster who has played in a college game, Elliott was the third to take snaps in the scrimmage after red-shirt freshmen Chazz Surratt (5 for 14, 90 yards in eight possessions) and Logan Byrd (12 for 21, 120 yards and 1 TD pass in eight possessions). The fourth quarterback, junior Manny Miles, only got three possessions and was 3 of 8 for 41 yards with a TD pass.
“Everybody wants a quarterback named at the end of spring and some of it is out of spite on my part and some of it is that nobody has separated themselves,” Fedora said. “We’ve got more guys that are competing for the job right now and I think all four have made good progress. I don’t think any one of them is ready to go for us at this point. But, through all the work during the summer and all the work at fall camp, we’ll have somebody ready to play to lead this team.”
All four of those quarterbacks competing in the spring will have another formidable quarterback with whom to contend in preseason camp when seasoned LSU transfer Brandon Harris arrives.
“For that position, experience is pretty important,” Fedora said. “Or, if you’re not going to be experienced, you better have experienced guys around you and we don’t have that luxury right now. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are playing and a lot of young guys are going to step in. Those guys have got to grow quickly.”
One of the most experienced offensive players, wide receiver Austin Proehl, wasn’t about to say which one of the four quarterback competing in the spring did a better job. But he’s been impressed with their effort.
“There’s not much more to say, to be honest with you,” Proehl said. “You’ve got a bunch of guys who are working their butts off to earn the coach’s trust and to earn the job. I give them a lot of credit. They get along, they come to work every day. They have 6 a.m. meetings and they come there and they want to win the job, so I give them a lot of credit.”
Of the four quarterbacks, Surratt looked like he had the best running ability given what he could show. Because of the rules of the spring scrimmage, the play stopped as soon as a quarterback was touched by a defender, so he could do only so much on the ground.
“It’s definitely hard to get a rhythm,” Proehl said of dealing with four quarterbacks. “But it’s our job to catch the ball. They’ve done a great job of competing.”
Proehl was the top target with 109 yards and one touchdown. The most impressive young receiver was sophomore wide receiver Juval Mollette, who had 100 reception yards and three touchdowns with some pretty athletic catches. He snatched a ball from a defender in a bit of a jump ball in the end zone on the scrimmage’s final play.
“We lost a lot of guys, we lost a lot of veterans,” said Proehl, who will be an offensive leader along with senior tackle Bentley Spain. “But guys like me, guys like Bentley have to step up as seniors and control this team. Be leaders and tell everybody we’re going to step up. It’s not one position or one guy. We all have to step up and be one unit and make plays for each other.”
For the receiving corps, there is plenty of room for returnees to grow with the loss of stars such as Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins.
“It’s definitely different, but I’ve prepared for this my whole life,” said Proehl, who also expects big things from fellow senior wide receiver Thomas Jackson, who had 25 reception yards Saturday. “When me and Thomas came to school, we wanted to be in this position. I prayed and asked to be in this position ever since I’ve got here. I’m happy to be in this position and I’m taking full advantage of my opportunity. I’m excited about what’s to come and I’m sure the guys in the room feel the same way.”
As for replacing all of the yards piled up last year by the running-back tandem of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, nobody really stood out. Putting up the best numbers were juniors Jason Schmidt (16 carries for 70 yards) and Darius Graves (21 carries, 65 yards and a touchdown). The returnee with the most yards last year, Jordon Brown, was on crutches and didn’t play.
“Overall, it was a good spring,” Fedora said. “We have a long way to go. There are new faces out there on the field that are going to have to make plays and we still have a long way to go.”
Fedora’s mission between now and the Sept. 2 opener against Cal is to find which players will best get that done.