Anthony Ratliff-Williams heaved himself onto the chair in the North Carolina media room with a strained sigh.
For the first time this season, the redshirt sophomore wide receiver led the team with 125 receiving yards and a touchdown along with 87 yards in kickoff returns during a 27-17 loss to Duke on Saturday. On top of physical fatigue, he was adjusting to the responsibility of becoming the Tar Heels’ go-to receiver for the first time in his career.
The UNC receiving corps lost its most experienced receiver on Saturday in senior Austin Proehl, and then lost redshirt freshman Rontavius Groves. The two join senior Thomas Jackson, who suffered a season-ending injury last weekend against Old Dominion, on the sideline.
With his left arm wrapped in a black sling, Proehl collected the remaining healthy receivers at halftime.
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“It’s time for everybody to step up,” he said. “I mean, you see people dropping so you got to see it as opportunity and not as a dull moment for yourself.”
Ratliff-Williams took on this mindset before Proehl even uttered the words. When UNC trailed Duke 10-3 with 22 seconds left in the first half, Ratliff-Williams became the focal point of the offense.
“You gotta make the play,” he thought as a pass hurtled his way. “We need a score right now.”
He did, reeling in a 35-yard reception to give UNC a chance to score. Ratliff-Williams was redshirt-freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt’s target again on the next play. With six seconds left in the half, he caught a 45-yard pass for the tying touchdown.
Ratliff-Williams totaled more yards on that one drive than he had during UNC’s first three games combined (67). After three consecutive punts by the Tar Heels’ offense, the quick 80-yard touchdown drive electrified the team and the crowd before the half.
“Ratliff was really explosive,” Surratt said. “I was trying to get the ball in his hands. He was making plays all day.”
Coming out of high school, Ratliff-Williams was the No. 1 quarterback in North Carolina. But when he came to UNC, he was told to make the switch to wide receiver.
At first, the change frustrated Ratliff-Williams. Learning a new position took time to click – too long. But he spent time before and after summer workouts training with Mack Hollins, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles and a former Tar Heel. With Hollins’ help, he began to adjust, and then excel.
Ratliff-Williams has earned the reputation of a playmaker based on how he operates in practice. Head coach Larry Fedora said he’s seen catches like the pair Ratliff-Williams made before half-time frequently in practice.
“I’d like to say those were ordinary plays for him,” Fedora said.
But Ratliff-Williams could only do so much for a group of wide receivers that has lost its leaders. By the final offensive drive, Fedora said several players were running receiving routes they had never tried in practice.
That left Ratliff-Williams with the task of keeping the receivers levelheaded and of being the team’s best chance as an end zone target.
He almost came through for the Tar Heels again on their last drive, as Surratt lofted a pass toward the double-covered Ratliff-Williams in the left corner of the end zone. But the ball bounced off his fingertips.
The duo that has worked to build a relationship since training camp finally connected on the field. And despite the team’s sullenness postgame, Ratliff-Williams is working to build optimism.
“Keep your head up,” he told Surratt after the game. “No matter what nobody says, you’ve got to stay positive, ’cause we need you.”
With so many injuries, UNC’s numbers have whittled, but Ratliff-Williams hopes to continue to focus on embracing the opportunities of his new role and on taking advantage of every open look. After all, someone has to make the play.