With the first game of the season days away, there’s still plenty to learn about UNC starting quarterback Nathan Elliott.
The lefty tapped to lead the Tar Heels on offense this season has just nine games of college experience, three as a starter, under his belt. Even so, he'll be crucial to the success or failure of the offense this season.
“I want to lead these guys the best that I can,” Elliott said on Wednesday. “I want to lead this team to the best of my ability and that’s what I plan to do.”
While Elliott won’t be the most seasoned passer in the game, here’s what can be expected from the dual-threat quarterback who led North Carolina to two of its three wins last season:
Athleticism: Elliott stepped into a significant role for the first time when Chazz Surratt got injured in the opening quarter of the Miami game. From the start, he showed one of his biggest strengths to be his athleticism, dancing around the defense when he needed to.
In his first play against the Hurricanes, Elliott received a pass from quarterback-turned-receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams that led to the first score of the game. He also rushed for 79 yards on the ground.
With more time to develop with the first team, his ability to make plays with his legs will be a major contribution — when the offense demands it. At season's end, Elliott was the Tar Heels' fourth highest rusher with 134 net yards, and he would have safely been third behind running backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter if his numbers were stretched across an entire season.
However, with this skill, Elliott can also struggle with deciding to keep it himself or stand in the pocket under pressure.
Hitting his receivers when protected: Like most quarterbacks, Elliott has a good enough arm to make the throws when he’s given the time and protection to do so. Throwing for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns, he showed he can hit an open receiver in stride, or consistently thread the needle on a slant across the middle.
On short throws when he has to make a decision in a hurry, Elliott performs the best. On several occasions, he found tight end Brandon Fritts in the middle of the field for significant gains, or for the score.
With more comfort in the pocket, he could really make the quick throws a major strength of the offense going forward.
Taking a hit: Elliott isn’t one of the larger quarterbacks in college football, so he’ll likely take some big hits from defenders much bigger than he is.
A season ago, that didn’t faze him at all.
“Nathan’s a pretty solid kid,” Fedora said. “His attitude, his work ethic, all those things. He holds himself to a very high standard, and if he doesn’t reach that standard on a daily basis then he’s disappointed himself.”
Elliott was sacked nine times in five games last season; most of those were big hits. But no matter how hard the hit, Elliott kept his composure and kept playing without letting it rattle him.
Third down: On passing third downs, when his team needed him the most, Elliott boasted a mediocre 36.6 percent conversion rate.
Elliott had trouble finding receivers for completions in crunch time, and he’ll need to improve those numbers if he wants to remain the starter all season.
Completions on the run:
Elliott doesn't look the most comfortable standing in the pocket.
Listed at 6-foot-1, Elliott is a shorter quarterback, which makes a collapsing pocket his Kryptonite. Under pressure, Elliott's accuracy and consistency drops tremendously, making it harder for him to hit receivers.
With an untested offensive line in front of him, Elliott may be asked to make deep throws, or throws under pressure when conditions aren't ideal. When that happens, it could create all kinds of problems for the team, like interceptions and missed opportunities.
Arm strength: Elliott has a real deep threat in Ratliff-Williams this season, but he hasn't shown his arm to be his best quality.
While Elliott is plenty accurate on short passes, his accuracy drops when he takes deeper drops and airs it out.
On the season, he had a 51.4 percent completion percentage — including a game low 41 percent against Miami. While this category will likely improve, it's something to keep track of in 2018.