Thomas Jackson was supposed to be here.
Sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams couldn’t find the senior receiver on the field during North Carolina’s 53-23 win over Old Dominion on Saturday. Between plays, Jackson left the game. Why would one of UNC’s best receivers be on the bench?
Then Ratliff-Williams heard that Jackson suffered an injury and is now one of several players UNC might be without on Saturday when it plays against Duke.
“Like I’m at a loss of words at some of the things that’s happened this year,” North Carolina’s offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “I’ve never really experienced it.”
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The news of Jackson’s injury shook Ratliff-Williams. Jackson was responsible for two of the Tar Heels’ four touchdown receptions in the first two games of the season and totaled the second most receiving yards against Louisville with 75. A walk-on who earned a scholarship in 2016, Jackson worked his way up to become one of UNC’s strongest receivers. Now, he’s on the bench with an unspecified injury.
Facing Duke in September has high enough stakes for UNC, but now the pressure will be escalated with the loss of Jackson. Like the offensive linemen, who have lost the majority of their would-be starters to injury, the receivers have to operate with a next-man-up mentality.
“We all just need to come together and step up,” wide receiver Jordan Cunningham said. “And when a guy goes down, we just have to keep it going and just keep playing.”
Cunningham is one in the line of receivers who have to fill Jackson’s hole. Kapilovic said he’s also turning to Ratliff-Williams, senior Austin Proehl, freshman Dazz Newsome, junior Devin Perry and freshman Beau Corrales to absorb the extra receiving weight.
Ratliff-Williams doesn’t take his role lightly. Each morning, he asks himself what he can get better at that day. He writes down his answer and spends that day’s football practice focusing on the morning goal.
“I actually had two things to work on today,” he said on Tuesday. “Coming out of my breaks and working on my releases.”
The young receivers are struggling the most to adapt to heightened demands. In a receiving corps already thin depth-wise, the blow of Jackson’s injury is far-reaching. For the freshmen, the adjustment period has passed. There is no more margin for error.
“It’s being accountable,” Kapilovic said. “When you show up today for practice or meetings, it shouldn’t be the first time you’re seeing Duke or understanding what we’re doing with our game plan. Stuff’s available for these guys 24-7. So they’ve got to prepare like a professional. You know, that’s their job.”
But they don’t make the leap to professional-style preparation alone. Jackson’s right there. Behind them at the team meetings, sharing advice on what they need to do beat out the Blue Devils’ secondary. At practice, he quizzes them on the plays, to make sure that when the time comes on Saturday against Duke, they will know what to do.
“That’s what younger guys need,” Ratliff-Williams said. “Just somebody to stay in their ear and make sure that they’re on top of their stuff. So he’s doing a really good job with that.”
He can’t run the routes, he can’t do the post-practice sprints, but as the Tar Heels prepare to face the Blue Devils, Jackson will be there. Offering advice and supporting the younger players who have to take the same jump that he made to become a dependable presence for the Tar Heels. From walk-on to role model.
He’s not supposed to be on the sideline, but he’s doing everything he can while he’s there.