After he hopped off a chair at the end of his postgame interview in the North Carolina football media room, a school official turned to Michael Carter and said, “You were popular.”
“Really?” said Carter, the Tar Heels’ freshman running back. It was his first college game, and he didn’t know that being surrounded by a hoard of reporters the instant you appear for an interview isn’t exactly typical. But neither was his performance.
The Tar Heels were averaging just 1.8 yards per play, 10 minutes and three punts deep into the 35-30 defeat against California on Saturday. Head coach Larry Fedora had already swapped starting quarterback Brandon Harris for redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt, and Cal had a 7-point lead.
Enter Michael Carter.
Eight yards on the first carry of your college career is impressive enough, but Carter’s carry on the next play stole the show: a 47-yard run down the left sideline to set up UNC for a 2-yard touchdown run by – you guessed it – Carter.
“To be honest, I probably should’ve scored (on the 47-yard play),” he said. “But it’s OK.”
The Tar Heels lost the game because of mistakes, and despite his strong showing, Carter was no exception. With about a minute left in the first quarter, he forfeited a fumble on a 1-yard run up the middle, giving Cal a drive that ended with a missed field goal.
But Carter wasn’t discouraged. The next quarter, he redeemed himself with a 9-yard touchdown run that ended with Carter vaulting over his defenders in an acrobatic leap.
“I’ve never jumped before,” he said. “So might as well try it.”
Fedora said UNC’s goal going into the game was to establish a dominant presence on the ground. Carter’s role was especially crucial given the ambiguity around the starting quarterback, as Harris and Surratt took turns commanding offensive drives.
Carter delivered, finishing the day with two touchdowns and an average of 8.5 yards per carry. With 94 yards, he led UNC to total 219 rushing yards – 73.2 more than last season’s average, even though the Tar Heels only returned players accounting for 2.7 percent of their rushing production last season.
“People are writing us off anyway,” Carter said. “So we have nothing to lose.”
Carter injected hope into a running game that had been disregarded before the season started, as the loss of T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood seemed to leave little room for optimism. And an injury during North Carolina’s spring game kept Carter from showing his potential before Saturday.
Now, some are even comparing the freshman to former Tar Heel and fellow Florida native Giovani Bernard.
“He came out and didn’t show any rookie in him,” senior wide receiver Austin Proehl said. “I think he came out confident and ran the ball hard and played physical. I think he did a great job when he had the ball in his hands and making plays. Obviously, the fumble hurt us. But that’s one of those things where he’ll learn from it and correct it, and we’ll move on.”
Carter committed to UNC after spending a weekend at Larry Fedora’s Freak Show, a camp geared toward recruiting high school players. He graduated high school early to join North Carolina in January, so that when UNC needed a running back to step up in the regular season, he’d be ready.
“He came in ready to work from day one,” redshirt freshman running back Jordon Brown said. “And it showed.”
The first season-opening loss at home in head coach Larry Fedora’s career showed a Tar Heels team with a lot of room to improve, but Carter’s flashes of explosiveness gave cause for optimism. Faith in the offense renewed by a running back you wouldn’t recognize as a rookie unless you checked the roster.