North Carolina

How UNC’s inexperienced receiving corps needs to improve against Louisville

UNC's Austin Proehl, right, runs upfield against California on Saturday. Cal beat UNC, 35-30.
UNC's Austin Proehl, right, runs upfield against California on Saturday. Cal beat UNC, 35-30. cseward@newsobserver.com

North Carolina offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic has one complaint about wide receiver Austin Proehl’s performance against California: He was on the field too much.

One of the few remaining offensive veterans, Proehl embraced the role as the Tar Heels’ receiving yards leader (4 receptions for 55 yards) in their 35-30 loss to Cal this past Saturday. But the bulk of the inexperienced squad couldn’t seem to get reliably open, and Proehl, a 5-10, 185-pound senior and UNC’s most experienced receiver, had little help.

“We’ve got to get the young guys to where they can line up every day,” Kapilovic said on Tuesday, “and know where to line up, and know the play to run, and so we can start using some of those guys.”

The receivers must learn to exercise stability in an offense that’s constantly teetering between its two quarterbacks: Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris. Against Cal, freshman running back Jordon Brown led the team in receptions, with nine.

“Obviously you want to get into a rhythm,” Proehl said. “You want to get into a flow of the game. And yeah, there’s definitely a rhythm factor within it. But like I’ve always said … as a receiver, no matter who’s throwing us the ball, we’ve got to make plays. So I think it’s a bigger deal for (the quarterbacks) than it is for us.”

Kapilovic was not concerned about the quarterback seesaw. Whether it was throwing with the quarterbacks before and after practice or making receptions during scrimmages, Kapilovic said the receivers had plenty of experience with Surratt, a 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman, and Harris, a 6-3, 220-pound graduate transfer from LSU. Senior wide receiver Jordan Cunningham, who made four catches for 39 yards against Cal, said the switches did not impact his play.

“Sometimes, I didn’t notice that there was a change in the quarterbacks,” Cunningham said. “I would just focus on my job and doing what I should do to help the team win.”

A couple of missed opportunities came at the hands of overthrown passes or other throwing errors, but many of the receivers failed to make themselves an open target. This week, heading into Saturday’s home game against No. 17 Louisville, the receivers are drilling the details: making precise cuts, aligning their timing with both quarterbacks and encoding running routes into muscle memory.

All with an emphasis on the need for speed. As Cardinals’ quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson takes to the field against UNC on Saturday, any points from the Tar Heels’ offense will relieve the pressure on the defense. The more offensive opportunities, the better.

The Tar Heels’ offense relied on success on the ground against Cal, and 18 of UNC’s first 22 plays were handoffs. But this time, delivering on scoring chances could depend more on a solid passing game.

“We want to be balanced,” Kapilovic said. “But we’re also gonna try to take advantage of what teams give us.”

On the running end, the Louisville defense won’t give much. In their 35-28 win over Purdue this past weekend, the Cardinals allowed 73 rushing yards to 293 passing yards. Louisville’s rushing defense was ranked No. 14 in the nation in 2016. Cal’s run defense was ranked No. 105.

As the young running backs take on a more challenging defense than the Bears, the wide receivers will face heightened pressure to perform.

“It’s just handling the game-day atmosphere and timing and just doing your job, you know,” Kapilovic said. “And don’t let all the outside noise affect what you’re doing.”

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