North Carolina football looks for replacements in the receiving corps
Last week, former North Carolina wide receiver Mack Hollins marked his NFL preseason debut with the Philadelphia Eagles with an impressive 38-yard touchdown catch that included two broken tackles.
Across the league, his former teammates Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer are also in the midst of training camp with the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
Over the course of their Tar Heel careers, the trio combined for 471 receptions, 6,622 receiving yards and 57 touchdown catches.
Their absence is a huge reason why the Tar Heels return only 12.7 percent of their total offense from a season ago, the lowest percentage of any team in a Power 5 conference.
“We lost a ton,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic succinctly put it after UNC’s practice on Monday.
But the message head coach Larry Fedora has preached this preseason is that even though the faces may be different from the ones fans have grown accustomed to seeing on the field, he does not expect his offense to stop running the way it has in the past.
“My expectation will be that there will be no bumps, you know” Fedora said in a press conference earlier this month. “That what we use in game one, they know and they know it very well. And there shouldn’t be mistakes, you know.”
For that to be the case at the wide receiver position, a strong supporting cast will need to develop around senior Austin Proehl, who caught three touchdown passes and ranked third on UNC in receptions with 43 in 2016.
The pool of candidates who can potentially contribute out wide for the Tar Heels is deep and varied, but the wide receiver position is one full of unknowns from the outside looking in. Apart from Proehl, senior Thomas Jackson (17 catches, 186 yards, four touchdowns), is the only returning receiver with a considerable amount of experience.
So the door is wide open for those could contribute, both for those new to the program and players who have been around for a while but haven’t had a chance to establish firm roles.
“I think a bunch of guys are going to step up and make plays for us,” Proehl said after UNC’s first practice on Aug. 3. “Like I said earlier, it’s going to be exciting to watch. To see these young guys, to see these older guys who have been here really make a name for themselves.”
Among the wide receivers who are more experienced, redshirt sophomore Juval Mollette stands out. Sidelined with a shoulder injury last season after sitting out in 2015, the 6-foot- 4, 200-pound Mollette has the size to make an impact, is familiar with the offensive scheme and is coming off a three-touchdown performance in UNC’s spring game in April.
Kapilovic said the Tar Heels “need” Mollette this season, while Fedora said he’s continued to make progress, and can contribute in the third phase of the game, too.
“He’s gone onto that next step in his mind where he feels like he knows what he’s doing at receiver, now if I’m going to get on the field I’ve got to be helping somewhere on special teams,” Fedora said.
Also back are redshirt sophomore Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a converted quarterback who caught three passes last season, and senior Jordan Cunningham, who recorded six catches in his first season at UNC after transferring from Vanderbilt.
Among those in their first year with the program, first-year Dazz Newsome, who was recruited and listed as a defensive back in the team’s media guide, has been working with the wide receivers and has impressed with his speed.
Likewise, first-year Beau Corrales, who stands out because of his 6-foot- 4, 205-pound frame, was lauded by Kapilovic for his efforts up to this point in camp.
While nothing is close to being set in stone at wide receiver for UNC – and at most other skill positions, for that matter – Fedora said on Monday he and his coaches are trying to give as many guys as many reps as possible before the season starts. Because once camp wraps up, it’s difficult to build depth.
With that in mind, the UNC coaches are looking for one thing in particular: consistency
“It’s a lot like every position we have right now, except for maybe tight end,” Kapilovic said of the wide receivers. “Just trying to find guys that will play consistently, and will help our team when they’re on the field.”