CHAPEL HILL — When freshman Michael Carter enrolled early for the spring semester, there was plenty of hope that he would fill much of what North Carolina lost with the exits of running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan.
There wasn’t much to see from Carter’s spring scrimmage performance —
31 yards on nine carries — to suggest that he would make an immediate impact in 2017.
That changed dramatically with a 47-yard first half run from the 5-9,
159-pound tailback. It showed power and the explosive speed that will make him a force for at least three seasons for the Tar Heels. Given a little bit of space on the left side after taking the handoff, he shot through, then got past three defenders along the sideline before a fourth one got to him.
“I saw Brandon Fritz, a crazy good block, Anthony Ratliff blocking down field, the offensive linemen,” Carter said. “They were coming fast so I had to cut it up and, to be honest, I probably should have scored.”
The problem for UNC is that his run was the only big play the offense produced all day in a 35–30 opening-game loss Saturday to California.
Carter doesn’t lack confidence in his ability. When asked to describe his style of running, he simply said, “I score touchdowns.” He did, in fact, do that twice on Saturday and finished with 94 yards.
“It’s what we saw in camp,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora. “We’re excited about what Michael, what he can bring to the table. You saw some of it today and that’s his first game in college football. He was solid throughout. He really was. He wasn’t big-eyed. He wasn’t overwhelmed by anything. He was pretty calm and ran the ball and made some nice plays.”
Carter couldn’t run past the final two defenders on his second touchdown, a
9-yard run, so he leaped and spun over the pylon for the score.
“That was just instinct,” Carter said. “I’ve never jumped before, so might as well try it. Not in a football game, though. I guess maybe in eighth grade but that doesn’t count.”
One sign that Carter has totally bought into everything Fedora emphasizes was when he mentioned that his spring performance was hampered by what Carter called a “nagging injury.” Fedora never talks about injuries and when Carter was asked about that spring injury, he said, “I don’t know if I’m allowed to speak” about it and called that practice “common sense.”
Since it was well before he joined Fedora’s program, he freely talked about the completely tearing the PCL and partially tearing the LCL in one knee that cost him most of his junior season at Navarre High School in Florida.
It was during the following summer that he committed to UNC at one of Fedora’s “Freak” shows in June 2016 before officially announcing it in in early July 2016.
“It was really down to a couple of schools, but I think North Carolina — after being there the weekend — I was feeling the love,” Carter said. “I feel like not just the coaches and players, I felt like I could be a good fit for this program.”
With that out of the way, he collected 3,345 all-purpose yards, including 2,536 rushing yards and scored 45 touchdowns in his senior season before enrolling early at UNC.
“It was a number of things,” said Carter, who was mainly recruited by UNC assistant Chad Scott, said of picking Carolina. “My family is really big on education, so that mostly. Being able to play championship football and get a championship education at the same time. Coaches come and go. So being able to connect to these players before I got there. Get to know them and develop relationships with them.”
He finished his high school career and started his college career with a mature perspective, thanks to observing his older brother, Dwayne Carter II.
“He took the long route to where is right now,” said Michael Carter, whose father played for South Carolina State. “He had a bad grade in high school, which forced him to go to junior college and then he had some success in junior college and then two schools offered him and both coaches got fired within the same week. So it forced him to go to another school. Seeing him have to go through so much to set an example of what not to do, and he’ll tell you that, too. Don’t do this. Take the easier road. I think that motivates me.”
His brother graduated last spring from Harding University and is trying to catch on with an arena-league team.
Another sign of uncommon maturity was when Carter was asked about his fumble. It appeared to be questionable because his elbow may have touched the ground before he fumbled.
“I’ll leave that up to y’all,” said Carter, who also wasn’t getting into the quarterback situation. “I think no matter who we have at quarterback, our running backs have to produce. No matter who’s in, we have to make plays.”
Coming into his college debut with a few more months in the program had definitely given him an edge over most true freshmen.
“My goal was to come in and help this team in any way I could,” Carter said of his decision to graduate from high school early and start college in the middle of his senior year in high school. “Coming in January as opposed to June or July gives me a better shot at doing it.”
The number of shots he’ll get should increase based on his performance against Cal. Although he averaged 8.5 yards per run, he only was given 11 carries compared to 13 for Jordon Brown, who started and ran for 54 yards on 13 carries.
But when you look at how Hood and Logan were used at times during their careers, assuming anything might be a mistake.
Carter said that he knew that he’d be splitting reps with Brown but wasn’t sure how it would work. When he came to Carolina with its pass-oriented offense, he probably didn’t expect 18 of the UNC’s first 22 plays of his first college game to be runs.
“We’ve got to be physical and I think that’s a big part of why we ran the ball early. We just wanted to establish that physicality as a football team,” Carter said.
“He’s a competitor,” said wide receiver Austin Proehl. “He’s a great player. He came in early. He’s learned the offense and he’s been competing ever since. He did a great job today. He’s been here eight months, been through the summer. Got stronger, got faster. He did a good job of picking everything up and getting better.
When he gets the ball, he’ll keep them guessing just as much as he does off the field. His Twitter handle is @Scientist_Mike, which makes you think there must be a good story behind the name.
“I made something up,” he said of the handle he created years ago. “I’m always up to something. Science is cool.”
So he’s not going to blind you with science, as the 1980s song goes, although he might be “poetry in motion.” Cool is certainly how UNC fans will describe his play on the field if he can come up with more of the sort of dynamic runs he produced in his debut.