This is likely not how Nathan Elliott envisioned learning he would be the team’s starting quarterback.
Not from his coach addressing the entire team moments after speaking with the 13 football players suspended for selling team-issued shoes. Yet when he heard that fellow quarterback Chazz Surratt, his main competition for the starting job, would be gone for four games, he must have known the job was his.
And now, just days later, here he was, in front of at least a dozen local media members. Microphones, cameras, cell phones and recorders were jammed in his face as he sat in a chair on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center outside the room where head coach Larry Fedora had just addressed the media at a 3:30 p.m. scheduled press conference.
With his eyes wide open, Elliott took a deep breath and began answering questions from the inquisitive reporters who wanted to pick his brain regarding the suspensions at hand.
“We talked about (the suspensions) in a manner of what we can do for our football team,” Elliott said. “That’s really the main concern here. We handled the situation and now we’re going to move forward. This is our first bit of adversity this team’s gonna face, and we’re gonna pay the consequences of that and move forward and get ready for the season.”
The team will now move forward with at least one question answered. By process of elimination, Elliott is now the starting quarterback. The junior played in five games last season, passed for 925 yards and threw 10 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions.
His best performance came in a 65-10 rout over Western Carolina. He completed 18-of-28 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns.
Elliott’s development will certainly be helped by the steady presence of electrifying junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who caught six touchdown passes as a sophomore. His last three reception touchdowns were courtesy of Elliott — a 3-yard pass against Pittsburgh, a 15-yard catch against Western Carolina and a 51-yard reception against N.C. State.
At ACC Kickoff in Charlotte on July 18, Ratliff-Williams highlighted the importance of having one stable player under center.
“I think it’ll be very important for the team aspect and being able to have that one quarterback in, have that guy that guys can turn to when things aren’t going the way they want them to go,” Ratliff-Williams said.
In addition to Ratliff-Williams, the Tar Heels also bring back their top two leading rushers — Jordon Brown and Michael Carter — two talented backs supplemented by transfer Antonio Williams.
Fedora did not hold back in his praise for the transfer from Ohio State on Monday.
“You’ve got another guy that’s very bright,” he said. “He’s gifted, he’s got great quickness and balance. I tell you, the great thing about Antonio has been his attitude. He’s got a smile on his face and an even bigger smile now that he knows he can play this year, and so he will definitely be a factor for our football team this year.”
And in Fedora’s eyes, Elliott has made progress since spring practice broke and is seizing the opportunity placed in front of him.
“Nathan’s a pretty solid kid. His attitude, his work ethic, all those things," Fedora said. "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. But he’s doing a great job of holding himself to that standard, and then raising the level of the guys around him.”
Where the suspension could be felt the most is along the defensive trenches. Two of the Tar Heels’ starters on the defensive line, Malik Carney and Tomon Fox, are out for four games. The team will stagger the two players’ suspensions, with Carney beginning his suspension on Sept. 8 against East Carolina and Fox starting his on Sept. 27 against Miami.
Carney is the team’s leading pass-rusher and Fox is another adequate starter, but Fedora did not seem fazed when discussing the suspensions, citing the team’s depth.
“Well Allen (Cater) has had reps, you know,” Fedora said. “So you’ve got him, you’ve got the two young guys that we just signed, also. Jake (Lawler) redshirted last year ,so this will be his first year getting sets of reps. Then you’ve got Lancine Turay and you also have Chris Collins. Those guys are getting reps right now getting prepared to play in those games.”
His comments seemed to echo those made by junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford at ACC Kickoff. Crawford harped on the importance of having eight able players in the trenches, a claim that will now be put to the test.
“It’s gotten to the point where we have just about everybody in the first two rows returning,” Crawford said. “With that being said, I don’t expect any drop off no matter who’s on the field, plus we have young guys that come in with some talent. I think that all the young d-linemen that have came in, they have a chance to show us what they really do and what they’re capable of.”
So as the players and media members departed from Kenan Football Center, one question was answered. But many questions, including the maturation of the young defensive linemen, remain.