North Carolina

‘It’s a new era.’ UNC football’s Michael Carter is healthy and ready to help lead.

North Carolina running back Michael Carter: ‘I play because I really enjoy it’

Michael Carter addresses the media following the Tar Heels' practice on Tuesday, August 6, 2019
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Michael Carter addresses the media following the Tar Heels' practice on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

At this time last year, Michael Carter was waiting to redeem a frustrating but promising 2017 season — but the UNC football running back was stuck on the sideline.

Carter suffered a broken wrist in early August 2018, an injury that would keep him out of action for the team’s fall camp and the first two games of his sophomore season. Once Carter was healthy, it would take time for him to reintegrate into an offense that already had two other proven running backs on its depth chart. He didn’t notch more than seven carries in a single game until the Tar Heels’ narrow 22-19 loss at home against Virginia Tech on Oct. 13, his third game back, when he recorded 165 rushing yards on 18 attempts.

North Carolina’s Michael Carter (8) races ahead of Duke’s Marquise Waters (10) on a 40 yard romp for a touchdown in the first quarter against Duke on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

But this year at camp, Carter hasn’t had any reason to miss a rep with North Carolina’s running backs — a group coach Mack Brown calls his “No. 1 unit.” Tuesday, in the team’s first practice of the year with full pads, Carter was taking handoffs from the shotgun; running through holes in the line; and coming up with answers when coaches questioned the offense’s toughness.

Simply being out there, Carter said, has brought him joy.

“Did you ever play a sport?” Carter told reporters at North Carolina’s indoor practice facility on Tuesday. “You ever had the game taken away from you? Like, you just miss it? It’s like that. I really love football. And I don’t play for what it could give me. I play because I really enjoy it. And I know that — because I’ve been tested.”

Carter continued: “Being back out here healthy, it makes me feel good. It truly, genuinely makes me feel good. Seeing your family, it makes you feel good after a while, right? It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m at home.

“Football is my escape, almost. I can be creative out here.”

Carter, who’s 5-10 and 200 pounds, recorded two touchdowns and 597 yards rushing last season — 28 more yards than his freshman year, despite missing two games and carrying the ball 13 fewer times. Last year was highlighted by his performances in the Virginia Tech game and a 42-35 loss to Duke on Nov. 10, when he had 148 yards and a touchdown.

“We try not to talk about last year because it’s a new era,” Carter said. “But it still stings. We know what it feels like to go 2-9, 3-9.”

Michael Carter, Antonio Williams and Javonte Williams

Carter will likely split the bulk of ground-game responsibilities with Antonio Williams, a senior transfer from Ohio State entering his second season at North Carolina, and sophomore Javonte Williams. Last season, Antonio Williams proved to be a valuable asset in the backfield from the start of the season and led the Tar Heels in carries in four games, including the season-opening 24-17 loss to California. He ended the season tied for the most rushing touchdowns with five.

North Carolina running backs Javonte Williams (25), Michael Carter (8) and Antonio Williams (24) line up for pass reception rotation during the Tar Heels’ practice on Tuesday, August 6, 2019 at the Football Practice Facility in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Javonte Williams didn’t become a threat on the ground until the final stretch of last season, recording 93 yards and three touchdowns on 17 attempts in the team’s 49-26 win over Western Carolina on Nov. 17, and 84 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts in its 34-28 season finale overtime loss to N.C. State.

Jordon Brown — another piece of the Tar Heel rushing attack last season who started one game in 2018 — transferred in April.

Senior left tackle Charlie Heck said he has confidence in whoever is running behind him out of the backfield.

“We’ve got a great room in our running backs,” Heck told reporters Friday after practice. “and every one of them can make the big play at any moment, so I love blocking for every one of them.”

Head coach Mack Brown agreed, telling stories about how universally impressive his running backs appear to be.

“It was funny, when (Urban) Meyer came in the spring, he said, ‘Woah, these running backs are really good,’” Brown recalled to a group of reporters Friday after practice. “And then, the first thing (guests) Mike Archer and Jim Collins said today was, ‘My gosh, those running backs look good.’ And they are, all of them.”

Brown also mentioned that UNC’s running backs furnish reliable sets of hands out of the backfield. Carter, specifically, had the third-most receptions on the team last season, with 25.

Fall camp looks a lot different than it did in Carter’s first two years: The team practices in a state-of-the-art facility, one that makes unexpected bad weather easier to deal with. Cameras, managed by several team videographers, are set up in the middle of drills. ACC officials go to practices and monitor the team’s live-action drills.

But for Carter, just being a part of camp is a different experience than last year was for him. And that’s all he cares to focus on.

North Carolina’s Michael Carter (8) picks up 22 yards in the first quarter against Miami’s Trajan Bandy (2) on Thursday, September 27, 2018 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Robert Willett

“I just love being out here with my friends,” Carter said. “Like, think about it: it’s low-key recess. I’m just happy. I’m just out here, having fun.”

More on UNC’s running backs

UNC returns seven offensive linemen with in-game experience, an anomalous figure of sorts given the banged-up, piecemeal lines UNC has put forth in recent years. Sophomore Billy Ross, sophomore Jordan Tucker, junior Layton Barber, senior Charlie Heck and graduate student Nick Polino each started at least one game last season.

Carter on Tuesday was asked about UNC freshman running back Josh Henderson. He answered with praise: “He comes from a good home, so no trouble. You don’t have to worry about him getting in trouble, and that’s something that gets taken for granted ... He’s coming along fast, faster than most freshmen do.”

Mack Brown said Friday that in live action play thus far — five days into camp — the running backs have fumbled twice. He called moments like those learning opportunities.

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Alex is an intern at The News and Observer, covering sports and however it intersects with life in the Triangle. Before that, Alex graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May and was a three-year staffer on UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.