That Larry Fedora hasn’t yet named the starting quarterback at North Carolina isn’t surprising, given his history. It’s possible that he decided the starter weeks ago, but hasn’t yet made that decision public.
It’s perhaps equally likely that the competition continues, in earnest, approaching the final weekend of the preseason. Regardless of who the starting quarterback is – Fedora, entering his sixth season as the head coach, likes to say he’ll put somebody out there for his team’s first offensive play against California on Sept. 2 – it is only but one question.
An important question, yes, but one of many the Tar Heels will attempt to answer during the first few weeks of the season. Another: Who, exactly, will become the most reliable, trusted wide receivers on the other end of the yet unnamed starting quarterback’s passes?
The development of UNC’s receiving corps, one that is largely unproven, and comprised of players who have been waiting for greater opportunity, could shape the offense as much as any other factor. And yet the mystery at that position runs deep, too, given all that UNC lost from a season ago.
After a recent practice, Gunter Brewer, the Tar Heels’ veteran receivers coach, compared his position group to a new, unworn pair of shoes. Only one of his returning players, Austin Proehl, has ever caught more than 20 passes in a season in college.
And so, Brewer said, using the shoe metaphor, “You’ve got to break them in a little bit.”
Proehl, at least, represents a proven option. He became a more prominent part of the offense midway through last season, after Mack Hollins, who for years was UNC’s most prolific deep receiving threat, suffered a broken collarbone during a victory at Miami.
Still, in seasons past, Proehl played a supporting role. He fit in among a group that included Hollins, Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer, who left UNC with more receptions (244) and receiving yards (2,907) than anyone in school history.
A season ago, Proehl finished third on the team in receptions, with 43, and third in receiving yards, with 597. The son of a longtime NFL receiver, and one who has been around football his entire life, Proehl speaks with an undercurrent of defiance when questioned about how he’ll transition into the role of a leader.
“I’ve been a leader since last August,” said Proehl, a senior who has been limited in the preseason by an undisclosed injury. “When we had four (returning) guys I was a leader, so it’s not something new to me. It hasn’t been something new to me.
“I think I’ve been around this game for 21 years, you know, (with) my dad. I’ve been to Super Bowls, I’ve been to NFC championships, I’ve been in locker rooms my whole life. So I know what it’s like and I’ve been around it, so I can help these guys, and they know that.”
After Proehl, UNC’s next-leading returning receiver is Thomas Jackson, a former walk-on who caught 17 passes last season. None of UNC’s other receivers caught more than six passes last season, which means that most of the receivers are entering this season anticipating opportunities they’ve never had.
As with most things during UNC’s preseason practices, the majority of which are closed to the public and media, ascertaining the progress of the receivers is an impossible task. Coaches say similar things about many of the players, and the players do the bulk of their work in private settings.
And so the season-opener, fast approaching, will offer the first real glimpse at the position’s potential. Proehl, among others, insists it’s high, despite the losses. At times during the past few weeks, he and Brewer have lauded the progress of players like Devin Perry and Josh Cabrera, a pair of juniors, and Dazz Newsome, a freshman who, by all accounts, has impressed in the preseason.
UNC’s most promising young receiver, Rontavius Groves, continues to recover from an injury he endured in the spring. He is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, Brewer said, and the hope is that Groves can contribute at some point this season.
In the meantime, greater things are expected out of Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a sophomore, and Juval Mollette, a third-year sophomore whom the coaching staff keeps waiting to emerge. Physically, the 6-4 Mollette could help account for the departure of the similarly-sized Howard, who had a knack for coming down with passes that only he could catch. Mollette isn’t there yet, though, Brewer said.
“We’d like for him to be ahead of where he is right now,” Brewer said. “He’s made some plays. He’s just, again, processing some of the things not at the tempo that we would like it to be. And if we huddled and stopped and told everybody what to do, that’d be great. But we don’t do that. So we have to have guys that can process at a speed that requires them to be able to make plays.”
That, perhaps, is UNC’s greatest challenge across all offensive positions entering the season: It has little idea what to expect on game day. The Tar Heels’ running back corps is almost entirely new. Whomever starts at quarterback will be doing so for the first time at UNC. And the receivers – most of them, anyway – will be playing a greater role than they ever have in college.
For years, the Tar Heels’ wide receiver position was a known commodity. Switzer proved, over several seasons, his ability to elude defenders, make difficult catches and escape for large gains. Howard became a dependable target on intermediate and deep routes near the sideline. Hollins earned his reputation as one of the best deep threats in school history.
Now, like everywhere else, there are few knowns.