Last season alone, five different players took snaps at quarterback for UNC (excluding non-quarterbacks used in wildcat formations), which posted a 2-9 record.
All but one of those guys – walk-on Manny Miles – will play in 2019 and so will early enrollee Sam Howell, a four-star recruit touted as one of the best pocket passers in the country. UNC certainly has quarterbacks – but does it have the quarterback, someone head and shoulders above the rest?
With the season opener over seven months away, new head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have time to figure that out. Here’s a breakdown of the Tar Heels’ situation at quarterback in advance of spring practice.
Strengths and weaknesses: Elliott has certainly exemplified patience during his career at UNC. He backed up Trubisky as a redshirt first-year in 2016 but hardly played, and didn’t see extensive playing time in 2017 until the ninth game of the season. In the first three starts of his career that year, Elliott put up big numbers as UNC went 2-1 against Pittsburgh, Western Carolina and N.C. State. His good play during this stretch helped Elliott win the job going into the 2018 season, helped by the fact that fellow quarterback Chazz Surratt was suspended for selling team-issued shoes.
As a whole, 2018 came with ups and downs for Elliott, a season that illustrated his resilience but also his limitations as a quarterback. Having started the first four games of the season, Elliott was eventually benched multiple times in favor of first-years Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder. Each time however, injuries forced Elliott to again play extensively. After throwing four interceptions in the season opener against California, Elliott went without an interception in his next six games, something any coach can appreciate.
While he may have been cautious with the ball, Elliott struggled to connect with his receivers for big plays, apart from an impressive showing against Pittsburgh. At his best, Elliott could run the offense functionally while taking care of the ball. But his lack of mobility and downfield accuracy put constraints on what was possible for UNC.
Chazz Surratt – Redshirt junior, 6-3, 215 pounds
2018 in review: One game, 10 passing yards, 40 percent completion percentage, zero passing touchdowns, three interceptions, 69 rushing yards on nine attempts, one rushing touchdown.
Strengths and weaknesses: As a redshirt first-year in 2017, Surratt split time at quarterback with then-graduate transfer Brandon Harris before winning the starting job. Surratt, known for his athleticism, illustrated how he could use his legs to extend plays in the passing game and gash opponents in the running game.
As a passer, Surratt consistently produced big plays but was prone to taking too many sacks. He lost the starting job to Elliott after suffering an injury against Miami but was expected to compete for the job ahead of the 2018 season. However, his three-game suspension kept him off the field, and in his season debut against Miami, he threw three interceptions and suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Surratt has showcased his ability to make plays with his athleticism, but his decision-making has cost him at times. In addition to that, UNC needs him to stay healthy.
Sam Howell – First-year, 6-0, 225 pounds
2018 in review (Sun Valley High School, Monroe, N.C.): 3,240 passing yards, 59.9 completion percentage, 36 passing touchdowns, eight interceptions, 1,392 rushing yards on 175 attempts, 17 rushing touchdowns Strengths and weaknesses: Howell was originally committed to Florida State but ultimately decided to stay in-state. After FSU offensive coordinator Walt Bell left the school and Brown was hired at UNC, the No. 4 pro-style quarterback signed with the Tar Heels in December, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
From a physical standpoint, Howell already has a big frame, and he’ll only become stronger now that he’s enrolled at UNC. He’s known for his arm strength, a skill that’s generally viewed as being innate, and his downfield accuracy was on display at the 2019 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Coaches generally speak of first-year quarterbacks needing to adjust to the speed of the game and the complexity of a college playbook. Howell will probably have to deal with these issues but he has the benefit of being around for spring practice.
2018 in review: Four games, 388 passing yards, 49.2 completion percentage, one passing touchdown, one interception, 76 rushing yards on 14 attempts, one rushing touchdown. Strengths and weaknesses: It’s hard to make too much of a judgment on Fortin because of an injury that limited his playing time as a first-year. After replacing Elliott late in a loss at East Carolina, he made the first start of his career against Virginia Tech in October. Against the Hokies, Fortin looked good and had the offense in rhythm, as he completed 10 passes for 97 yards and had an additional 44 yards on the ground. Unfortunately for the Suwanee, Ga. native, a leg injury just before halftime kept him sidelined for almost a month. Fedora complimented Fortin for the poise he showed when playing meaningful snaps so early in his college career, which could serve him well down the line.
Fortin started the season finale against N.C. State but completed less than 50 percent of his passes for only 276 yards on 40 attempts. The fact that UNC was willing to play him near the beginning of his first season, however, suggests there are certainly some redeemable traits to his game. To UNC and Fortin’s benefit, 2018 counted as a redshirt season for him, since he appeared in only four games.
Jace Ruder – Redshirt first-year, 6-2, 220 pounds
2018 in review: One game, 80 passing yards, 80 completion percentage, one passing touchdown, zero interceptions, 21 rushing yards on three attempts. Strengths and weaknesses: When Elliott was struggling in a November game against Georgia Tech, Fedora decided to give Ruder a go, with Surratt and Fortin out injured. The second first-year to play at quarterback for UNC in 2018, Ruder impressed immediately and the crowd at Kenan Memorial appreciated his contributions. With a crisp delivery, Ruder led the Tar Heels on multiple scoring drives and used his big body as a factor in the running game, too. Unfortunately for Ruder, his day against Georgia Tech – and his season – came to an end with an apparent shoulder injury suffered as he trucked a defender. Before he exited the game, the wounded Ruder managed to throw the first touchdown pass of his career before leaving due to injury.
Like Fortin, it’s hard to cast judgment on Ruder because of a small sample size. But based on his performance against Georgia Tech, Ruder appears to be able to get the ball out of his hand quickly. He’s also unafraid to put his body on the line, which could serve him well but also make him prone to injury.
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