One thing is certain: Sam Howell is going to be the North Carolina football team’s starting quarterback.
Beyond that, not much has been established offensively.
Sure, the offensive line is solidified, with all five starters from last year back for another run — but while that may be priority 1A for a team whose balanced offensive system led the Tar Heels to an Orange Bowl berth last year, finding replacements for its four league-bound offensive weapons can’t be far behind.
Though fall camp will be where the depth chart is truly solidified, some of the Tar Heels' budding weapons provided a peek into what offensive coordinator Phil Longo will be working with at UNC’s spring game on Saturday.
“We lost a lot of really good players on the offensive side of the ball, a lot of guys are gonna have to step up and play this year,” Howell said. “A lot of that goes into the summer, see how good we work over the summer, see how hard those guys work and who steps up and fills those roles in the fall.”
There was sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs’ 48-yard reception from Howell, hauled in with outstretched arms. There was junior running back Josh Henderson’s cut to the outside of the line and subsequent sprint into the end zone. And there was junior wide receiver Emery Simmons’ acrobatic 44-yard haul over a defensive back.
And while these all may have come during heavy rain and in an unorthodox structure, Saturday brought the brightest lights the Tar Heels will be under this side of Sept. 3. And for an inexperienced group of skill position players, showing out in spring ball provided reassurance that — despite departures from Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome — the Tar Heels have enough depth to reload.
“Some guys flashed,” head coach Mack Brown said. “You really have to be careful to make sure that you didn’t just see a flash here or a flash there, but I do know that there’s a lot of good young players on this team.”
There wasn’t much offense to go around on Saturday — the rain made sure of that — but the moments of potential were still there. Downs’ potential was on full display in the Orange Bowl, where he caught two touchdown passes despite having just three receptions throughout the season to that point.
The former four-star recruit was impressive once again on Saturday, even if it was only in short bursts, creating separation off the line and winning his one-on-one matchups with defensive backs.
“In the offseason, I really focused on getting my hands better and being more physical at the top of my rout,” Downs said. “I’m a quick guy, and I’ve always been quick, but I’m trying to integrate more hands and being more physical in my routs to get even more open.”
There will be heavy expectations on the Tar Heels this fall, and particularly on Howell — who will be playing for the chance to be next year’s No. 1 pick and for a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. After earning a spot in the New Year’s Six, making it back to a major bowl will be the least of the expectations, and dethroning Clemson atop the ACC will be the most of them.
But for now, just relax. Because in spite of expectations, offensive question marks and a looming Sept. 3 trip to Virginia Tech, for now, all the Tar Heels have to do is keep getting better.
And if the last two years are any indication, that’s exactly what they’ll do.