North Carolina

Which is greater: The holes UNC RB Jordon Brown must fill this year, or the expectations?

UNC running back Jordon Brown, center, runs through a drill after getting a handoff from quarterback Brandon Harris during practice on Aug. 2.
UNC running back Jordon Brown, center, runs through a drill after getting a handoff from quarterback Brandon Harris during practice on Aug. 2. cseward@newsobserver.com

From rushing 1,705 yards for 26 touchdowns his senior year of high school to chucking a touchdown pass as his team’s quarterback in the state championship, North Carolina sophomore running back Jordon Brown earned the reputation of a do-it-all player for Southern Durham High School.

But following former UNC running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan will take more than versatility.

“We’re held to the same standard that those guys were, and they were veterans,” Brown said. “We’re younger guys, but we’re still held to the same standard.”

Brown is UNC’s best chance at establishing an aggressive running game in the coming season. And against Cal on Saturday, he has to make his debut as a college starter in a stadium accustomed to watching Hood plow through defenders and Logan rocket down the field.

“I see myself as a leader for the running back group,” Brown said, “and just a guy who can help other guys on the offense just get through practice, know their practice habits and work hard everyday.”

Of UNC’s top six rushers in the 2016 season, Brown is the only one returning to the Tar Heels.

Last season, 2,115 of UNC’s 2,174 rushing yards were tallied by players who have since graduated or been drafted, so North Carolina can only attribute 2.7 percent of last year’s rushing strength – 59 yards – to returners. Brown ran 55 of those yards on 20 carries as a freshman last season, capping off the year with the only touchdown run of his college career: a 5-yarder against Stanford in the Sun Bowl.

Brown will have help this season from Michael Carter, a freshman from Florida who rushed 2,536 yards his senior year. But as the closest thing UNC has to a veteran running back, Brown bears the pressure and brunt of the burden that being the leader entails.

“I think it’s the same for everybody at every position …” Brown said. “Whoever is put out there has to get the job done, and I don’t think there’s any additional pressure.”

As the Tar Heels face Cal on Saturday, Brown, like the rest of the underclassmen-heavy offense, must overcome deficits in experience. But in the past four seasons, North Carolina has only won one of its season-opening games – a 2014 victory against Liberty. The matchup against Cal is the starting point for a team shrouded in ambiguity.

“You have an idea of what to expect, ’cause you’ve seen those guys scrimmage against our defense, which I think is pretty good,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. “But until it’s real and live in the stadium and against another opponent … you’re really going to see who can handle that.”

Brown doesn’t even know which quarterback will hand him the football on Saturday. And with the starting quarterback still a question mark, a stable run game is critical in helping the Tar Heels maintain the offensive prowess that propelled them to success in 2016. But Brown seemed unfazed by the uncertainty.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the running backs to show what we can do,” he said.

Football was always a natural fit for Brown, and he tried his hand at several positions before deciding on running back. With relatives living in Chapel Hill, Brown grew up watching the UNC program – and admiring running backs like Giovani Bernard as he honed his game. His uncle and brother both played college football, at N.C. Central University and Gattaca College, respectively.

“Everybody plays football,” Brown said. “And it’s kind of expected.”

But now he must meet demands far beyond just playing the sport, and Brown has spent the offseason preparing for this test. He honed his focus in the weight room to build strength, speed and explosiveness while improving his knowledge of the game.

“I’m excited to see him go out there,” Kapilovic said. “I thought he really improved throughout the year last year … So we really have high expectations for Jordan.”

Brown is a few days away from his chance to reap the fruits of his offseason labor – and to set the tone for UNC’s run game. Until then, the pressure will keep accumulating, and you can’t help but wonder how Brown will fare in withstanding the heat.

Add that to the list of awaited answers.

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