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Friday September 24th

Preview: Several UNC running backs hope to leave footprints with strong 2021 season

Sophomore running back Josh Henderson (23) runs with the ball at the football practice on Saturday Mar. 27, 2021 at Kenan Stadium.
Buy Photos Sophomore running back Josh Henderson (23) runs with the ball at the football practice on Saturday Mar. 27, 2021 at Kenan Stadium.

For the last two seasons, the formula for North Carolina’s offense was historically simple. 

Whenever all-ACC quarterback Sam Howell knew he needed to pull back to keep defenses guessing, he’d calmly clap his hands and place the ball into the arms of a future NFL running back. If that failed — a rarity considering the team’s conference-leading 2,830 yards of rushing output — another future pro would be ready to take his turn. 

Although UNC will return one of the best offensive lines in the conference, the departures of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter will make replicating last year’s record-breaking campaign a challenge. 

But no matter how big this roadblock appears, head coach Mack Brown has been doing this long enough — going on 44 years, to be exact. 

He understands the importance of not building teams, but programs, which is why he has made it his mission to rebuild the running back position through the transfer portal and develop young talent with the help of new running backs coach Larry Porter. 

If the Tar Heels hope to inch closer to winning the program’s first ACC title since 1980, maintaining balance between the ground and passing attacks will be critical. Here are some names that could continue UNC’s recent production in the running game this fall. 

Ty Chandler

Losing Williams and Carter led many to believe the 2021 team would begin play with relative inexperience at the position, but in early January, the Tar Heels were gifted a veteran by way of college football’s newest trend. 

Chandler, a six-foot, 210-pound transfer from the University of Tennessee, announced he would spend his final season of eligibility in Chapel Hill following a four-year stay in Knoxville.

His most productive year was his sophomore season, when he racked up 630 yards on 5.5 yards per carry, which helped him win the team’s Offensive Player of the Year award. Before 2019, he was named to the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list, a distinction he also holds this season.

Following a career-best 655-yard campaign in his junior year, Chandler’s numbers dipped slightly in 2020, mostly due to the team abandoning the running game while trailing during the team’s seven losses. In Tennessee’s three wins, he played some of his best ball of the season, rushing for a total of 237 yards.

The transfer portal has become a proven method for adding players in recent years, and considering the youth within the Tar Heels’ depth chart, Chandler's experience has him poised for a huge role early on.

D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood

The running back situation gets much more unpredictable behind Chandler, but Brown has his eyes set on two young talents that are expected to earn playing time in Friday’s season opener at Virginia Tech. 

Jones, a sophomore, saw minimal action last season, notching 11 carries in mop-up duty during some of the Tar Heels’ more lopsided wins. Although Jones' game experience is limited, Brown and the coaching staff have praised his improvement and work ethic throughout the offseason.

As a former high school quarterback, first-year Caleb Hood used the last few months to build a more powerful physique while getting more acclimated to the new position. During spring and fall practices, his natural burst of speed — now paired with a 230-pound frame — helped him earn rave reviews from Brown and some teammates, who naturally compare his bruising running style to Williams. 

Just days away from the start of the season, the Tar Heels still have plenty of running back questions to answer, and if expectations for that unit are as high as they have been in recent years, it will be nearly impossible for them to be satisfied. 

But for now, the only focus must be kept on slowly rebuilding the room one step (or rush) at a time. 

@hunternelson_1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com  

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