Four Downs: Youth, QB battle focus of UNC spring game
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina’s Blue Team ran past the White Team 38-17 in the annual spring game, and all analysis past this point should be prefaced with the caveat that this is only a scrimmage and ultimately doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme.
It also serves to highlight not only some of the reasons there is a lot of optimism surrounding the Tar Heels moving into next season but also some potential flaws.
One of the biggest takeaways from spring practices is which players can get the "lead", if there is a lead to be had, in various position battles. There’s certainly one everyone will be keeping an eye on.
1. The quarterback "battle" between redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky and rising junior Marquise Williams might not be much of a battle after all.
The first touchdown pass didn’t come from either Trubisky or Williams but instead from Kanler Coker (the likely third-stringer) late in the third quarter. However, Trubisky still looked like the better quarterback for much of the spring game, finishing with 183 yards on 20-of-32 passing (he was sacked just once).
Williams, though, has the advantage of experience. Williams ended the season as UNC’s starter after senior Bryn Renner broke his collarbone and had been splitting time with Renner even before that injury.
Rising sophomore receiver Bug Howard saw it that way, too.
"Pretty tight (battle) — yeah, I would say that, but I’d say âQuise has the upper hand after having six games of experience coming in after Bryn Renner got hurt," said Howard. "But Mitch has come along pretty good. He’s making good choices and he made both teams today really good, same as âQuise."
Williams finished 22-of-32 for 135 yards with an interception but was sacked six times (all in the first half).
Trubisky is more of a traditional quarterback than Williams, although he has plenty of mobility. Still, he’s young, and has very little game action — though UNC head coach Larry Fedora says he’s a quick study.
"He’s really now, I think he’s comfortable. He understands the offense now. He hasn’t gotten any live reps, really, until fall camp and now this," Fedora said. "So he’s come a long way.
"He understands the offense now. He’s got a pretty good feel of where to go with the ball. So I think he’s starting to learn how to command the offense. Each one of them have steps to do to keep progressing."
Both quarterbacks are aware of how relatively even they are, and both are going to keep competing for the job and see what happens.
"It’s going to be a competition no matter what. We’re going to work hard all summer and push each other, and I think it’s going to stay a good competition," said Trubisky. "I’m curious to see what the coaches think. It’s going well."
The more likely outcome, though, is that both of them will see playing time.
"It is what it is," said Williams when asked about that possibility. "I can’t even speak on that because coaches make that decision. Whatever we have to do to win us football games, hey, go for it."
"Whatever it takes to help the team. I would like to get on the field any way possible, whether it’s at quarterback or if I have to block, whatever it is," Trubisky said. "I just want to help the Tar Heels this season. If it comes down to splitting time, we’ll see how it goes."
Fedora is never one to tip his hand, and he isn’t about to start.
"If you look at it stat-wise, they were probably very similar in the things that happened out there. Part of it is there’s no way I could say that the (Blue and White) teams are equal by any means, so that’s really hard to judge," Fedora said.
"I thought both of them made some good plays. There were a couple things that I didn’t like, a couple balls that were thrown from each of them that I didn’t like that were thrown. So we’ll keep evaluating and they’ll keep competing."
2. The Tar Heels’ youth movement from last year looks to continue.
Last year, 47 of UNC’s 55 touchdowns were scored by freshmen or sophomores, including 30 of the final 31. Freshmen wide receivers Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer (mostly as a punt returner) were responsible for a lot of that, but so were some of the young tailbacks.
And the backs were on display yet again as rising sophomore tailback T.J. Logan finished with 108 yards and two touchdowns, while his fellow rising sophomore Khris Francis had 87 yards and two touchdowns.
It was freshman tailback Elijah Hood, an early enrollee and North Carolina AP Player of the Year coming out of high school, who turned some heads. He’s just one more addition to an already-talented group.
"He looks a lot different from a lot of backs that have already been here," said Howard of Hood.
"Elijah just knows one speed and that’s full speed. And so when he gets the ball, he’s full speed."
Last year, the young cornerbacks matured as the year went along — a good sign for a UNC defense that has struggled over the years. That clearly carried over to the spring as they had a number of pass breakups and three interceptions.
The depth is so significant that rising senior cornerback Tim Scott was moved to safety in the spring, just to make room for the freshmen and sophomores that provide plenty of depth back there.
Fedora is rarely comfortable with the depth at any position, but he was as optimistic about the depth at cornerback as he has ever been.
"I believe we do (have depth) and I think that’s why (defensive coordinator) Vic (Koenning) was comfortable moving (Scott to safety) — if you’re going to take him from one spot and move him to another, you’d better have some guys that can go and play because he’s the only one that had any experience out of any of them," Fedora said.
"Brian Walker and Des Lawrence have really done a nice job this spring. You throw in (freshman) M.J. (Stewart) and I think Vic really feels a lot more comfortable with those guys."
3. There will still be plenty of questions about UNC’s offense, particularly on the offensive line.
There were some injuries to offensive linemen during spring practice that resulted in a relatively thin rotation for the spring game itself, but the quarterbacks were sacked a combined nine times.
It was an issue for the Tar Heels last year too, to the point where Williams was splitting time with Renner even before Renner’s injury just because he was more mobile and could escape the pressure.
(Even the elusive Williams was sacked six times in the spring game, all in the first half.)
"We still have a long way to go there. But we had some guys that got beat up and couldn’t get very many reps," Fedora said. "So I wouldn’t say that we’re anywhere close to where we want to be up there. But I can tell you through the summer and through fall camp, we don’t have a choice and we’ve got to be ready, and we will. We’ll have guys that are ready to go."
"The offensive line is working their butts off. I’m really proud of them, especially with our lack of depth right now. We’ve got a couple injuries on the o-line but they’re just progressing," Trubisky said. "I can’t see any weaknesses besides depth right now. I think as long as we keep improving, getting better, I’m not worried about the offensive line."
The Tar Heels also lost one of their most prolific weapons from a season ago in tight end Eric Ebron, who figures to be a high first-round NFL Draft pick this year.
Life without him will be an adjustment.
"It’ll be a lot quieter without him," Fedora joked. "How do we fill the void? I don’t know that we have that presence in the middle of the field right now, so that means the guys on the outside are going to have to make more plays until we get a guy that steps up and shows that he’s going to be a playmaker over the middle."
"It’s tough. (Ebron) was one of the guys who caught the majority of the footballs, but â¦ we have a lot of guys that are going to step in and do what we need to do to win football games," Williams said.
"T.J. Thorpe and Quinshad (Davis). Those guys, they’d take a bullet for you. If they want to catch a ball, they’ll go into traffic and catch a ball."
Thorpe and Davis (both rising juniors) combined for 10 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown in the game.
4. UNC has a new offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell, but you wouldn’t have known it.
Littrell, who was at Indiana last year, joined the UNC staff at the beginning of 2014 after previous offensive coordinator Blake Anderson took the head job at Arkansas State.
He basically spent the spring learning UNC’s current scheme and terminology, and that should make the transition relatively seamless. So far, according to the players, it has.
"We’ve been running the same system for the last three years. He’s getting used to it and he’s doing a heck of a job," Williams said. "I think he’s doing a tremendous job just to come here in the spring, 15 practices and getting thrown in here, he’s been unbelievable. He’s adjusted fast."
That’s almost the type of thing someone would say about a young player or a transfer quarterback learning the offense, but in essence, that’s how Littrell has treated the transition for now.
Even though he’s not bringing in his own terminology or plays, the Tar Heels already feel that he’s put his stamp on things, though.
"He’s really adopted our offense and he’s been calling a great game. He called a good game today," Trubisky said. "He’s really just running all of our stuff so it’s really nothing new, nothing I’ve seen he brought over. He’s just bringing his mentality of offense and we’re just adding it to ours."