CHAPEL HILL — Just when North Carolina’s quarterback picture became clearer in the first half, an apparent right hip injury to Chazz Surratt muddled it. Then Brandon Harris rebounded from a rough opener and made it even more unclear.
All that was settled in a 47–35 loss to No. 17 Louisville was that the Tar Heels have good options at the position … and issues on defense.
Coach Larry Fedora, of course, doesn’t talk about injuries. But Surratt admitted that he hurt his right hip during a first-quarter run.
“I took a shot to the back and it just got worse as the game went on,” Surratt said.
Obviously, that’s a rookie mistake in Fedora’s world. When asked if Surratt got hurt, Harris’ response was, “nice try.”
After a smooth first half, going 12 of 14 for 168 yards and two touchdowns, he spent much of the second half on the sidelines slowly pedaling on a stationary bike. Even with the nagging right hip, he said he could have played in the second half.
“I think so,” he said. “I think it was more of a risk factor playing. But that’s on Fedora’s end. He asked me if I was ready, I said that I felt like I was able to go but that’s his decision. It was frustrating, but I was on the sidelines supporting us as a team. Brandon did a good job coming in.”
Anybody who saw Harris’ performance in the opener would have questioned the decision.
But with a 22-yard touchdown pass between defenders on a seam route to Thomas Jackson in the third quarter, Harris seemed to finally find his rhythm in a light-blue uniform. It was not a Lamar Jackson-level groove by any means. But this is what Fedora was looking for when he brought Harris to Chapel Hill.
“He seemed more relaxed,” said Thomas Jackson, who had two catches from each quarterback. “He got the things that he needed get fixed, he got them fixed. He had a fantastic day, both him and Chazz and that’s huge for everybody.”
Harris completed 17 of 23 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions after getting two passes picked off in the loss to California.
“You know, things really didn’t go his way,” Brandon Fritts, who had two touchdown receptions (both from Surratt), said of Harris. “So I texted him and said, ‘keep your head up, we still believe in you and are still behind you no matter what happens.’ He was able to get this opportunity when Chazz went down. He did a good job.”
Harris said that he wasn’t so much that he was discouraged by his showing against Cal but upset about it. He also emphasized that there is an adjustment period since a lot is new for him after transferring from LSU.
“I’ve not played with these guys before ever in life and these aren’t the same players that I once had,” Harris said. “This is not the same offense I’ve played in, so, at the end of the day, it’s just about relaxing and playing football.”
Surratt said that he got most of the first-team reps in practice and was told Thursday that he would start.
“They told me to start and expect to play a lot this week,” Surratt said. “So, I guess my thought process was, just try not to do too much. I thought we did a good job running tempo, executing our plays called. We just got into a little rhythm there.”
Many probably thought that Harris would never get on the field Saturday because Surratt was playing so well. But Surratt pointing to his right hip late in the first half was a hint that there was an issue.
Obviously, Fedora wasn’t going to talk about that.
“We just decided to go with Brandon and Brandon was doing a really nice job there,” Fedora said. “Chazz probably could have gone. I’m not sure he would’ve been 100 percent at the time. We will see how it plays out tomorrow. The plan was to start Chazz and then play it by ear from there.”
Harris’ best option seemed to be wide receiver Austin Proehl. The two had nice chemistry, connecting a few times on sideline patterns with Harris making some pinpoint throws.
“We’ve been working on it from camp on and I give him a lot of credit. He came in and made plays,” Proehl said after snagged seven of his eight receptions on Harris passes on his way to a career-high 120-reception-yards day. “I give Brandon a lot of credit, coming in and throwing the way he did. I think he did a great job.”
Harris said he’s learning his new team. Well, he’s learned that Proehl is a dependable target.
“Austin’s a pretty good receiver, man,” Harris said. “So anytime you get an opportunity to throw Austin Proehl the ball, you want to execute because he’s really aggressive and he’s one of our talented receivers.”
Although Harris takes a lot of positives out of his performance against Louisville, he was frustrated that he couldn’t convert on a big fourth-down chance in the fourth quarter.
“It’s very upsetting, as a competitor, when the coach says they want to go for it on fourth down, I want do everything in my will to get this fourth down completed and we just came up short,” he said. “We lost, so I never take any moral victories out of a loss and say I played well. Anytime we don’t win as a team, I feel like I’ve let the team down.”
For the third straight week, there is no clear answer to the question of who will start for UNC at quarterback, this time for a road game against Old Dominion. Fedora has to weigh Surratt’s right-leg issue, but nobody outside the team is going to know until Saturday.
“I thought both quarterbacks did a nice job,” said Fedora, whose biggest concerns in the next week will be trying to solve his team’s defensive woes.
One big help will be that he won’t have to deal with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who accounted for 525 total yards, the most accumulated against UNC in program history. That will be a comforting thought, in addition to knowing that he has two fairly solid quarterback choices.