So what does that mean for the Tar Heels, a team attempting to bounce back and prove that last year’s 3-9 record was an anomaly caused by major attrition at key positions and a stroke of bad luck with injuries?
Well, UNC should be pretty good at running the ball.
That was already looking to be the case even before head coach Larry Fedora learned Williams, a junior with two years of eligibility, could suit up this year.
Back are junior Jordon Brown and sophomore Michael Carter, both of whom were bright spots for UNC last season. The duo combined for 1,172 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 235 attempts. Brown was good at picking up yards between the tackles and was a safety valve out of the backfield in the passing game (29 receptions, 237 yards), and Carter flashed big-play potential (four games with at least one run of 20-plus yards), hinting at even brighter days to come.
But adding Williams puts the group over the top. On an offense that’s still trying to figure out what to do at quarterback, is youthful at wide receiver, injury-prone at tight end and unsettled – not exactly untalented, however – at offensive line, UNC’s running backs seem like the surest thing it has.
In Williams, the 2018 Tar Heels have a former four-star recruit at their disposal, one who averaged just north of five yards per carry in his one year of extended action with the Buckeyes (290 yards on 57 attempts).
As a highly touted recruit, Williams was the type of player this state’s ACC programs try to keep close to home. Instead, he chose to play for a national power, one that won a national championship as recently as the 2014 season.
After playing minimally as a first-year in 2016, Williams held his own last season. His three rushing touchdowns on just 57 carries and his quality yards per rush average say as much.
Unfortunately, when you play at at a place like Ohio State, your peers are likely just as good as you, if not better.
With J.K. Dobbins, who emerged as the Buckeyes’ feature back, and Mike Weber both running, Williams was once again going to be part of a crowded backfield had he stayed in Columbus.
After scoring twice against Indiana, Williams didn’t play in Ohio State’s showdown with Oklahoma the next week, one of six games he didn’t record a carry in. When given a chance, though, he shined, especially in games against UNLV (11 rushing attempts, 58 yards) and Illinois (19 rushing attempts, 74 yards).
One can deduce that the chance for more carries with the Tar Heels was what Williams was referring to in April when, in a message posted on Twitter, he said his decision to transfer to UNC was partially based on “having particular opportunities.”
Opportunities for Williams should be plentiful in Fedora’s offense. At 5-11, 210 pounds, he’s bigger than both Brown and Carter, and what’s considered a third-string running back at Ohio State may well be an upper-echelon player for most teams in the ACC.
Regardless of whether it’s redshirt sophomore Chazz Surratt or redshirt junior Nathan Elliott who wins UNC’s starting role at quarterback, the Tar Heels will once again have a signal-caller with limited game experience, and shouldn’t expect either guy to play at the same level Mitch Trubisky, Marquise Williams and Bryn Renner did earlier in Fedora’s tenure.
For that reason, UNC should not be afraid to depend on Williams to lead an already qualified group of running backs. Traditionally, Fedora’s teams at UNC have loved to air it out – the big play via the passing game has been part of the offense’s identity through the years.
As Bill Connelly of SB Nation reported, UNC in 2017 ran the ball on only 54.8 percent of standard downs (88th nationally) and 29.4 percent (97th) of passing downs. (Connelly considers standards downs to be “first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer and fourth-and-4 or fewer, and passing downs as “second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more.”)
Using the passing game to power a high-octane offense has been a tenet of several great offenses since Fedora came to UNC. But the likes of Giovani Bernard, T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood have starred in the backfield as well.
If UNC is to get its offense back up to snuff in 2018 – the Tar Heels averaged 26 points per game in 2017, its lowest mark in the Fedora era by 6.3 points – the running game seems like the logical place to start.
Quarterback play will factor heavily in how successful UNC is offensively this season, and most coaches would tell you they seek balance between the run and the pass, but an above-average ground game could alleviate pressure from Elliott and Surratt, a proposition strengthened by Williams’ newfound eligibility.
A year ago, it seemed that everything that could go wrong for UNC did.
On Friday, something went right for the Tar Heels. With fall camp right around the corner, the year’s already off to a good start for UNC and its newest offensive weapon. They’ll take it.
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