We continue our look at the 2021 Tar Heels with a look at the position group that has to replace the most production from a year ago. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter combined for 2,957 yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns a year ago and with both gone to the NFL, it leaves behind a lot of uncertainty. Here’s a breakdown of the group that will be attempting to replace college football's most productive running back duo from a year ago.
Senior transfer Ty Chandler will likely be the leader of the group following a strong spring, something that should come as no surprise with how much the staff valued him in the portal. He brings plenty of experience with him from Tennessee, where he totaled 2,511 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns in his four seasons with the Volunteers. The feeling from many seems to be that the Phil Longo offense will fit him well after he went through three different systems in his time in Knoxville and Mack Brown mentioned multiple times during the spring that he is hoping for Chandler to be able to show off his speed behind this veteran offensive line. Combine that with the experience of playing in the rough and tough SEC and it feels like the Tar Heels at least have one piece that they should feel confident in heading towards fall camp.
Sophomore D.J. Jones is the incumbent that shined the brightest last year in the limited reps that he saw. Jones is the most complete of the remaining backs in the backfield, showing good vision and nice elusiveness when he had the football in hands and catching the ball well out of the backfield, even back at the high school level. Had he not broken his foot in the week of the Miami game, Jones would have been the starter for the Orange Bowl, something that appeared to indicate that he was the clear No. 3 running back behind Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Of that group behind Chandler, he would appear to be the player with the best chance to factor in when this team takes the field in Blacksburg in Week 1.
Junior Josh Henderson is one of the most experienced options of the group and his strong performance in the spring game may keep him in the battle for reps this fall. While guys like Chandler and Jones will bring the quick, slippery running style that Carter ran with, Henderson will help add that hard-nosed running style that the team will need between the tackles with Williams gone. In his limited action, he has shown flashes that he can be that guy, but two talented true freshmen may challenge him to be the team’s main short-yardage option.
Early enrollee Caleb Hood will be the biggest threat early on and, as he showed in the spring game, although he is a little less experienced than some at the position, there is a lot of upside here. At 5’11, 230 lbs., size won’t be a concern for him and looking back at the spring game will show you that playing through contact doesn’t look like it will be much of an issue for him. The biggest questions for him, being that he played quarterback for his four years at the high school level, will be can he consistently catch the ball out of the backfield and does he have the ability to protect the passer on throwing downs. If the answer to those two questions at any point this season is yes, Hood will have a chance to see playing time as a freshman.
Kamarro Edmonds, a summer enrollee is a bit of a wild card here, as he too will enter Carolina with the size and talent to make an impact right away if he can settle in quickly. He added nearly 25 lbs. after announcing his commitment to Mack Brown and the Tar Heels and it showed in his senior film. He is a more shifty guy than either Henderson or Hood, but if he wants to make his impact felt early, it may have to be as a short-yardage back. With his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and complete skill set, though, he may be the running back with the highest ceiling in this 2021 Tar Heel backfield.
Senior British Brooks started the Orange Bowl game for the Tar Heels and was serviceable, but with the limited role that he saw in the spring game and the amount of young talent ahead of him, it doesn’t appear as if he is headed towards a sizable role this year offensively. He will still be a valuable part of the special team units after being named Special Teams MVP a year ago, but barring injury, his role will likely remain minimal on offense.
Redshirt freshman Elijah Green is the unknown factor of this running back group. One of the main focuses for Mack Brown and his staff since Green arrived on campus was to get him reps catching the football out of the backfield and in pass protection, things that the system he was a part of in high school never really had him do. The big question is whether he has done enough to prove himself and start attempting to climb the depth chart. Last year, in the garbage time carries he received against Syracuse and Western Carolina, he flashed, proving to be a nice change-of-pace out of the backfield. Fall camp will be a good chance to see if he has made improvement without the football in his hands and if he has, he may be able to start pushing for some carries. If not, he may be passed over by some of the more complete running backs on the roster.
There is no denying that this unit is not nearly as talented as it was a year ago, but there is much more depth than there was a year ago and plenty of talent to go with it. Chandler looks a near certainty to be a major contributor at the running back spot, especially early on, but there are still some question marks outside of that. As long as one or two other guys can emerge from the remaining group of backs and emerge as reliable options in the backfield from week to week, this is a running game that still has a chance to be productive this season and allow this offense to remain as one of the better ones in the country.
Projected Depth Chart
#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.
#26 D.J. Jones, So.
# 4 Caleb Hood, Fr.
#23 Josh Henderson, Jr.
#33 Kamarro Edmonds, Fr.
#21 Elijah Green, RFr.
#24 British Brooks, Sr.