The North Carolina football team held its annual spring game on Saturday at Fetzer Field. Nathan Elliott led all quarterbacks by completing 8-of-12 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns, running back Jacob Schmidt had 16 carries for 70 yards and receiver Austin Proehl racked up 109 yards and a touchdown.
On the defensive side of the ball, D.J. Ford recorded a game-high 13 tackles, while Dajaun Drennon was credited with three sacks.
Here are three takeaways from UNC’s spring game.
North Carolina was left in a tough spot after the early departure of Mitchell Trubisky this offseason. It’s hard to replace a first-round talent — even harder when he leaves a year early — but that’s the challenge for head coach Larry Fedora and his coaching staff. This spring practice season, then, was a huge opportunity for the quarterbacks to get reps and get better.
The critical point here: UNC’s quarterbacks have progressed, but North Carolina has made little progress in finding its new quarterback.
Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd all had good spring practices and improved while splitting first-team reps. Elliot led the unit on Saturday, Surratt went 5-of-14 for 90 yards and Byrd finished 12-for-21 for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Fedora, however, is no closer to naming a starter.
One of his favorite words is separation — when one quarterback separates himself from the pack on the practice field in the spring or fall, he’ll name him the starter. There was no separation this spring, thus no meaningful progress towards anointing a new starter.
The situation will become even muddier when quarterback Brandon Harris steps on campus. The experienced transfer from LSU provides another option for the coaching staff, although he has an uphill battle learning the entire offense in such a short period of time.
It took awhile for Fedora to officially name Trubisky the starter ahead of the 2016 season, even though the job was clearly his. Expect this quarterback battle to bleed deep into fall practices, especially with Harris in the mix.
Other than Proehl, North Carolina essentially had to replace its entire fleet of skill position weapons. You know the names that are gone: Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan, Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard. But nobody, not even Fedora, really knows who will step up and pick up the slack.
Saturday’s spring game gave a tiny glimpse into who could step into the new roles. Receiver Roscoe Johnson had a good first half and showed Switzerian abilities to create separation and collect yards after the catch.
Juval Mollette caught three touchdown passes, albeit while preying on the second-team secondary. At 6-foot-4, he might take over the Bug Howard red-zone role. And Anthony Ratliff-Williams flashed some potential as a field-stretching deep threat. The common themes here are flashes and potential — developing consistent play is the next step.
Running back is even more of a question mark. Neither Jordon Brown nor transfer Stanton Truitt suited up Saturday, leaving all the carries to Michael Carter and walk-ons Schmidt, Darius Graves and Antonio James. Carter finished with 31 yards on nine carries. The walk-ons each had their moments.
California is waiting on Sept. 2. Someone is going to have to carry and catch the ball. The spring game is a step forward, but it didn’t answer every question.
It’s hard — actually impossible — to tell how much of the UNC defense’s strong play Saturday was the result of facing an inexperienced offense or because it was actually playing well. But the first-team defense did dominate by pressuring the passer, batting down passes and making life hard for the offense.
It does look like the defensive line is setting up to be a strength of the team. Drennon’s three sacks were a great sign for the defensive end who has struggled with injuries throughout his time at UNC. Defensive tackle Jalen Dalton has been working on improving his pad level under new defensive line coach Deke Adams and also had a sack Saturday.
It’s also a deep group, thanks to a couple of strong recruiting classes the past few years and UNC’s commitment to rotating through defensive linemen over the course of a game. Jason Strowbridge, Tomon Fox and Aaron Crawford all could have breakout campaigns next fall.
The loss of defensive tackle Naz Jones, then, doesn’t hurt too much. Keep an eye out for this unit and the pass rush next fall, as it could be a real asset to the defense.