UNC (3-1, 1-0 ACC) returned six of its top seven pass catchers from the 2015 season, and the hope coming into the year was that they would make plays for starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Four games into this season, that’s certainly been the case — as was seen on the game-winning drive in the Tar Heels’ 37-36 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.
But the surprises have come on the second unit.
Offensive Coordinator Chris Kapilovic said the backup receivers — including Thomas Jackson, Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Jordan Cunningham — have impressed in limited action this season.
“Thomas Jackson had some nice plays (Saturday),” Kapilovic said. “That was a critical third down where he made a guy miss and got a first down.”
That play came in the second quarter against Pittsburgh, with North Carolina down by 12 and facing a 3rd-and-7. Trubisky went to the former walk-on, who caught a quick pass, juked the defender and picked up 10 yards.
The play before, Jackson had just been tackled quickly for a 1-yard gain. But Trubisky still had faith in the junior receiver, going back to him the next play.
“I was pretty mad about the bubble that I ran, because the dude caught me, and I’m not really used to getting caught like that,” Jackson said. “So the next one I just ran a little out route, and Mitch kinda threw it behind me, so I snagged it ... I was like, just get the first down.”
Jackson and fellow junior receiver Austin Proehl have probably been the two biggest surprises to emerge from the offense in 2016.
Proehl is second on the team in receptions (15) while Jackson has seven catches in four games after having zero receptions last season. Kapilovic said Proehl might be the team’s best route-runner and called Jackson a blue-collar guy who does it all.
On Saturday, North Carolina will need all the playmaking help it can get with a huge challenge looming in Florida State.
“They’ve got a lot of good athletes out there,” Trubisky said Monday. “They are going to test us up front, on the outsides. They are going to man us up, and they are going to force us to make plays.”
This game is one where the Tar Heels will not get many opportunities. Passing windows will be tight, and chances for big plays will be slim.
But senior receiver Ryan Switzer thinks the UNC receivers — including him, Bug Howard, Mack Hollins, Proehl and the stars of the second unit — will be ready for the Seminoles.
“With our guys on the outside, we feel like it doesn’t matter who we play,” Switzer said. “We match up well with anybody. I’ll take Bug, Mack, A.P., myself over any secondary in the country.
“But we are going to have a tremendous test this week with FSU and what they do ... This will be our biggest test as a receiving corps so far.”