Even if Brandon Harris had played well in North Carolina's season-opening 35-30 loss to California, the following would still be true: he's a one-year rental, and UNC will have a new starting quarterback at this time next season.
That reason alone should be enough to warrant somebody other than Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU, getting extensive playing time at quarterback for the Tar Heels this season.
And after the way things played out against the Golden Bears, that somebody is clearly Chazz Surratt, who is far from a finished product, but a candidate deserving of the opportunity to earn the distinction as “possibly UNC’s quarterback of the future.”
UNC’s performance against Cal also showed he might be the Tar Heels’ quarterback for right now, too.
After UNC’s offense sputtered out of the gate with Harris in charge, Surratt entered on UNC’s third drive. While he struggled with some miscues of his own – the decision to try to thread the needle on a fourth and three with UNC down by four midway through the fourth quarter wasn’t the best – Surratt more or less managed the game well.
Four of the Tar Heels’ five scoring drives came with Surratt in, and the redshirt first-year completed 18 of 28 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, he provided a score and finished with 66 yards on 16 rushing attempts.
Even with Surratt in, UNC lacked the explosiveness it's had in bunches in recent seasons, but that could mainly be the result of the recent exodus of talent at the skill positions over the offseason. Still, Surratt did his job. He came in, didn’t try to do too much and didn’t turn the ball over.
The same can’t be said about Harris.
Up to now, the narrative about him has focused around the fact that he was never utilized correctly as a dual-threat quarterback in Les Miles’ I-formation offense at LSU.
That may be true, but in his first start as the operator of UNC’s spread offense, Harris experienced the same troubles that led to him being benched in favor of Danny Etling two games into LSU’s season a year ago.
There was the overthrow of Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who was ready to haul in the first touchdown of his career. Then came the first of two interceptions, this one right before the end of the first half, as UNC looked poised to at least attempt a field goal right before the break. Eventually, a third-quarter tip-drill pick, the result of a poor decision on Harris’ part, ended his day.
His performance as a whole might have also dampened the notion that he, as a seasoned player with SEC experience, could provide a shot in the arm of a UNC offense in the process of retooling this season.
No, a one-game sample size should not serve as a referendum on Harris’ ability, nor can it predict how he will fare from here on out. But clearly, this situation is not akin to Russell Wilson immediately stepping in without missing a beat at Wisconsin after leaving N.C. State, or more recent transfer stories involving players such as Trevor Knight leaving Oklahoma for Texas A&M and Everett Golson going to Florida State after starting at Notre Dame.
The decision by head coach Larry Fedora to bring in Harris was a smart one, and one that shouldn’t be criticized. Even if he isn’t UNC’s best option on the field, he at least brings depth and experience, assets the Tar Heels are lacking at quarterback.
But once UNC plays its final game this season – whether or not that’s a bowl game is an interesting question – none of that will matter. So in the meantime, why not let Surratt get the first crack?
Best case scenario, he performs well, having clearly established himself as UNC’s best quarterback. Even if things don’t go well, the coaching staff will at least have a better understanding of what it has to work with beyond this season.
Moving forward, UNC will probably continue to play multiple quarterbacks, considering Fedora’s willingness to do so in the past. This week, Fedora said he hasn't committed to a starter yet and that playing two quarterbacks against No. 17 Louisville is "a possibility."
Before the season began, Fedora was asked whether the presence of all the ORs at quarterback on UNC’s depth chart was because all of his guys were performing well or if they were all doing poorly.
He chuckled at the question, and responded with one of his own: “I guess Saturday will determine that, won’t it?"
Indeed, last Saturday showed that quarterback may not be a position of strength for the Tar Heels this season. But letting the guy who will be here beyond this season lead the way could benefit UNC in the long run.