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UNC’s Mack Brown is confident in his three QBs. But one thing still worries him.

Mack in a Minute

For returning Tar Heel football coach Mack Brown the ACC Football Kickoff is a full day of talking
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For returning Tar Heel football coach Mack Brown the ACC Football Kickoff is a full day of talking

There’s an excitement surrounding North Carolina’s football program that was there when Mack Brown was hired in November, and remains there.

It’s partly because North Carolina’s players see the new coaching staff as a fresh start after two consecutive losing seasons. It’s also partly because the Tar Heels are having success in recruiting. And it’s partly because UNC’s quarterback situation doesn’t seem as bleak as it has in recent years.

UNC has three quarterbacks -- Cade Fortin, Jace Ruder and Sam Howell -- who left spring practice in a three-way tie for this season’s starter.

Brown said a decision has yet to be made about who will start in the season opener against South Carolina on Aug. 31. But despite the uncertainty, it appears all three of quarterbacks have the confidence of their coaches and teammates.

“They’re all good,” UNC defensive back Myles Dorn said, his eyes wide with a big smile on his face. “It’s crazy. I haven’t been a part of that here. I’ve seen it with (Mitch Trubisky) and (Marquise Williams), but it’s one of those situations where we don’t know who is going to start.

“But whoever he rolls out there, we’re going to be good though. We’re going to roll with him and win.”

During the 2017 and 2018 football seasons, UNC had questions about whether or not their quarterbacks had enough talent to win games against the best teams in the conference.

The answer then was no.

Under former quarterbacks Brandon Harris, Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott, the Tar Heels finished 3-9 in 2017 and 2-9 in 2018. Last season, UNC finished tied for 106 in the country with 14 passing touchdowns. They also finished the season with 14 interceptions.

RAL_UNCFB14-030319-EDH.JPG
From left, North Carolina quarterbacks Cade Fortin (6), Jace Ruder (10) and Sam Howell (7) run drills during UNC’s first spring football practice in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, March 3, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Tar Heels finished tied for 106th in the country with 14 passing touchdowns last season. They also had 14 interceptions.

This season, there’s optimism. The three quarterbacks, Fortin, Ruder and Howell, are young and haven’t played much. But they each shown promise in the spring with an ability to move the ball downfield and make plays.

“Each one of them can ball,” UNC senior offensive lineman Charlie Heck said. “They’re so good in their own way. All three of them have kind of a game-changing swag about them. At any moment, they could throw a bomb. They could break a run.”

Fortin, a 6-3, 220-pound redshirt freshman, played in four games last season and started two. He was 32-of-65 for 388 yards and threw one touchdown. He also had 14 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown.

Ruder, a 6-2, 225-pound redshirt freshman, played in one game last season. He was 4-for-5 for 80 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 21 yards, but was knocked out of the game after injuring his shoulder.

And Howell, a 6-2, 225-pound true freshman, was a four-star prospect coming out of high school in Monroe. He was ranked the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country by 247Sports’ composite rankings.

Brown said the three quarterbacks struggled initially. So the coaching staff told them to not focus on who would start, but instead focus on learning the offense. That helped, Brown said, and he has confidence all three can win games.

Brown, however, is also bracing himself for the fallout of having three talented quarterbacks who are all relatively the same age.

“You always worry about the transfer portal when you start talking about quarterbacks because if they’re not playing, they usually want to transfer,” he said “So we’ve got to figure all that out.”

Last season, the Tar Heels needed all of their quarterbacks.

At one point during the 2018 season, Surratt, Fortin and Ruder suffered injuries that caused them to miss multiple games. Former coach Larry Fedora even had to use his top wide receiver, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, as a backup quarterback.

“The problem is they’re all so young and two of them got hurt last year,” Brown said of Fortin, Ruder and Howell. “So if you pick a young one that struggles or a young one that gets hurt, and the other two leave, you’re without. And one of the things that was a problem for us at the end at Texas is we got in quarterback trouble.”

Brown said he hopes it doesn’t happen, but if that’s the case, they’ll have to just recruit more.

As for who will start against South Carolina, Brown said it will be the quarterback that “moves the team the best and gets in the end zone.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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