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Monday December 5th

Hampton, young rushers show promise in UNC football's 56-24 season-opening win over FAMU

<p>First-year running back Omarion Hampton (28) carries the ball down the field during UNC's opening game against Florida A&amp;M at Kenan Stadium on Aug. 27, 2022.</p>
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First-year running back Omarion Hampton (28) carries the ball down the field during UNC's opening game against Florida A&M at Kenan Stadium on Aug. 27, 2022.

With a myriad of questions surrounding the running back position heading into the 2022, North Carolina might have found some answers on Saturday night.

First-year running back Omarion Hampton rushed for 101 yards in the Tar Heels' 56-24 season-opening victory against the Florida A&M, becoming the first Tar Heel running back to run for 100 yards in his debut since Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice in 1946. 

On one scoring drive in the first half, Hampton rushed for 13 yards and a first down and then had an 18-yard carry that put the Tar Heels in the red zone, which set up a Gavin Blackwell touchdown reception. His longest carry of the night was 25 yards, and he added two rushing touchdowns to his overall stat line. 

Despite missing spring practice, Hampton had one of the best debuts ever by a Tar Heel running back, demonstrating just how physical talented he is and indicating he could be a very special player once he gets a grasp of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s scheme. 

“He’s still trying to figure out what to do," redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye said. "Sometimes, I have to tell him which way the play is going. But, when he gets the ball in his hands, it’s good for our team. I think y’all saw it tonight — we just gotta get him the ball.”    

Although Hampton’s performance was the headline grabber, the rest of the Tar Heels’ young running back group also had strong outings, hinting at the group's promise. Fellow first-year and four-star prospect George Pettaway also had a quality debut performance.

Pettaway made the most of his four rushing attempts, accumulating 51 yards. His longest run of the game came early in the fourth quarter when he made four Rattlers’ defenders miss with several elusive cuts on the way to a 29-yard touchdown run that put UNC ahead 42-24.  

“George is really fast,” head coach Mack Brown said. “George made everybody look slow when he was out there on his run.” 

Sophomore running back Elijah Green joined his first-year teammates with a quality outing, rushing for 69 yards on eight carries. While Green didn’t score, he did have the longest run of the game, a 46-yard carry that put the Tar Heels in Rattlers’ territory. 

It wasn’t just the running backs carrying the ball well, though, as Maye showcased his ability to be a productive ball carrier when plays broke down and on designed quarterback runs, adding 55 yards on the ground. 

On one of Maye’s scrambles, he displayed his athleticism by leaping over a Rattlers’ defender and nearly landing in the end zone before being ruled down. 

“I was close up, so I was like, 'Oh, dang,'” junior wide receiver Josh Downs said. “I thought he was in, though. They should’ve gave him the touch just because he had a great effort, but I mean, it was very athletic.”  

The Tar Heels didn’t use a variety of running backs last season, as UNC’s leading rusher from a season ago, Ty Chandler, had 122 more rushing attempts than the next running back. 

The group has big shoes to fill, as UNC’s running backs and quarterback Sam Howell helped the Tar Heels have the top rushing attack in the ACC in 2021. Next week, if the Tar Heels hope to get past Appalachian State  — who finished last season with the top rush defense in the Sun Belt Conference  — the young faces will be forced to take center stage. 

“We have a lot of talent,” Downs said. “Omarion Hampton and George Pettaway are very good backs, and we also have three other backs that are good as well.”  

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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