CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s wide receiver corps can’t catch a break.
As the crazy number of injuries forces the Tar Heels to go deeper into their bench, the best pass target the rest of the season might now be a converted quarterback.
After losing many talented receivers from last year’s teams, those losses are more damaging because one pass catcher after another is getting hurt. That has left Carolina looking at the former No. 1 high school quarterback in the state his senior year as its go-to option.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a redshirt sophomore, gave fans a hint of his big-play potential when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Louisville. He elevated his profile even more when he caught passes of 35 and 45 yards in the final minute of the first half.
The first was a lunging catch near the left sideline against tight coverage. The second, which went for a touchdown, was an over-the-shoulder snag in stride he caught at about the 10-yard line.
His best career receiving game — five catches for 125 yards — wasn’t enough, and a mistake by him was costly in the Tar Heels’ 27–17 loss to Duke on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
When UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt threw his first career interception, returned for a 61-yard touchdown play by Duke’s Byron Fields Jr., the chemistry he had with Ratliff-Williams earlier in the game went awry. After going in motion, Ratliff-Williams fell down just as the ball was being thrown and Fields, who had been trailing Ratliff-Williams on the play, came up with the pick.
“Things like that you can’t control and bad things will happen,” Ratliff-Williams said. “You learn from those mistakes and go back and watch film. It was just a miscommunication between with me and the quarterback on the coverage. That’s all it was. It was man coverage. It was on me. I should have seen it.”
That failure will be tough for him to deal with. But there were so many other positives, including an amazing leaping catch in the fourth quarter with his arms up, knowing he was going to be on the receiving end of a big hit.
“That’s always in the back of your mind when you go up to make a catch when you can’t see the defender when you make it,” he said. “You’ve just got to block it out of your mind and you know you’ve got to make that catch and come down.”
He’ll need to come up with many more such catches if Carolina is going to turn around a season that now leaves the Heels 1-3 after blowing yet another fourth-quarter lead.
UNC already was without wide receiver Thomas Jackson for the season, then Austin Proehl suffered a broken clavicle in the first half. That same injury forced Mack Hollins — one of the talented receivers lost to graduation — to miss the last six games of last season. In addition, redshirt freshman wide receiver Rontavius “Toe” Groves suffered a non-contact leg injury and had to be carted off of the field.
Proehl still is a senior leader of the team and tried to motivate the other receivers at halftime.
“Austin Proehl gave a talk to us and said it’s time for everybody to step up,” Ratliff-Williams said. “You see people are dropping, so you’ve got to see this as an opportunity.”
It’s not the sort of opportunity that Ratliff-Williams probably expected when he came to UNC. He was Scout.com’s No. 1 quarterback in the state (and 21st in the country) coming out of Butler High School in Charlotte after the 2014 season.
He quickly found out that he was going to be at the other end of passes during his career at Chapel Hill.
“It was definitely a tough transition since I came into college,” said Ratliff-Williams, who threw for 1,783 yards and 25 touchdowns, while rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns on 118 carries as a high school senior.
“It wasn’t my plan to play receiver. It just happened. It was a tough ordeal, being able to overcome that,” he said, clarifying that the ordeal wasn’t the news of his position change as much as learning his new position. “I knew it was going to take some time. I was a very impatient person at first. But once I learned how to do it, it was great.”
He said that Hollins made his transition easier.
“He definitely pushed me to work on my craft as a receiver,” Ratliff-Williams said. “Just stayed out there and did everything to make sure I was at the top of the game.”
In a bit of an oddity, those Surratt connections with Ratliff-Williams went from the No. 1 quarterback in the state in 2015 (Surratt at East Lincoln High School) to the No. 1 quarterback in the state in 2014, which Ratliff-Williams conceded was a bit crazy.
Also amazing is the big-play threat he gives the Tar Heels, one that they will likely lean on heavily as they battle through the injuries.
“He’s a kid that can make plays,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s fighting his butt off. Those things were in the game plan for him, and when those opportunities came to him, he made plays. That’s what he does in practice. I’d like to say those are ordinary plays for him.”
Not ordinary for most receivers, though, and Surratt was more than happy to throw the ball his way and expect that the balls would be caught.
“Ratliff is always explosive,” Surratt said. “I’m always trying to get the ball into his hands. He had a really good game. I just kept going to him because he was making plays for me. That was the big thing. I thought we had a good connection going.”
Even with Ratliff-Williams likely now a frequent passing target who will probably get more attention from defenders, he says he doesn’t feel any pressure.
“Not at all, because I know that every receiver we have has the ability to make those plays, it’s just that my number was called and I had to step up,” he said.
He definitely did that on Saturday.