Saturday closed down spring practice for the Tar Heels on Saturday in Kenan Stadium with the annual spring game which had a bit of a different look. After beginning the day with position drills and a 7-on-7 period, the team played an 85-play scrimmage that was ‘thud’ as opposed to full-contact, sparking debate amongst the fanbase about that decision. The staff has been reviewing the film since and will form the depth chart heading into the summer. That inspired us to form our own depth chart heading out of the spring based on what we saw on Saturday and heard from the staff so far this spring.
This position group is very simple to lay out. The starting job was clearly set in stone entering camp with the Heisman Trophy candidate Maye, leaving the backup job as the only thing to be determined. Harrell put that battle to bed quickly during camp, earning that job early last week prior to Saturday’s scrimmage. Hudson will now get to focus on settling into the new offense as the No. 3 on the depth chart before likely getting another shot to challenge Harrell next year to replace Maye.
This unit entered camp needing to find some separation, and they have been able to do that partly because of injuries. Green and Hampton look to be the top two backs right now, but Brooks should also be a part of the rotation once he is able to return to full speed in the fall. The bigger question is how do the injured players who didn’t play on Saturday fit into the equation. Pettaway did some good things this spring before his ankle injury and his special teams ability should motivate the staff to keep him around and find him a role. The odd man out in terms of the primary might be Caleb Hood, who was limited this spring and has struggled through injuries his entire time on campus. Kellan Hood flashed on Saturday, but there is just too much depth in front of him to factor in.
Brown said a couple of weeks ago that the Tar Heels have four solid receivers that are part of the blue team. The two transfers, Walker and McCollum showed out on Saturday and look like they may be the top two receiving options this season for the team. Paysour thrived in all three of his starts for the team a year ago and he should have no problem taking on a full-time starting role this season where he splits time between the outside and the slot. Blackwell didn’t receive much playing time towards the end of last year, but he had progressed so far this offseason and has solidified himself as the primary rotational receiver. Jones and Greene Jr. look to be the other two guys pushing to earn reps consistently, although Jones may already have those locked up after starting for the team last season. Hamilton and Billups IV had good camps and Brown said that they showed they can be valuable down the road which probably means they won’t factor in much this season. Chapman is the best of the remaining receivers on the roster and provides depth at a position that doesn’t have a lot of it right now.
The three-headed monster at tight end is back for the Tar Heels this season, a huge boost for this offense in the first year under Chip Lindsey. Nesbit returns as one of Maye’s top targets after the best season from a tight end receiving-wise since Eric Ebron and could build on that if he can stay healthy. Meanwhile, Morales and Copenhaver will continue to handle the bulk of the run-blocking duties and be secondary receiving threats. The depth behind them was a bit thin this spring and walk-on Jake Young who was behind them has already departed via the transfer portal, but Julien Randolph will arrive in the summer and Deems May III has made the conversion to tight end from defensive end, as well.
All spring we have been hearing about the fact that this unit will remain dependent on the starters from a year and Saturday showed why. There was a substantial dropoff from the blue team to the white team and it likely means very limited depth on the horizon for this offensive line again. Gaynor, Montilus and Rolland are all set to be back in starting roles at their same spots this season, while Barnes is making the move out to left tackle. Lampkin appears to have come in and grabbed a hold of that right guard spot, leaving Adorno to take on a similar role to what he had last season as the sixth offensive lineman who can rotate in if needed. Trying to find more depth beyond that will probably be tough. Green probably has the best chance to become part of the rotation when he returns from the injury that kept him out of spring camp. The rest of the group has some work to do to even be considered for rotational reps.
The defensive line group was certainly better than last year on Saturday, but it’s really hard to be any worse. There doesn’t really seem to be any starting roles locked up, but rather a rotation of players that can play multiple positions and help provide a multitude of different looks. Rucker and Gainer are expected to be a big part of what the team does rushing the passer this season, while Ritzie and Shaw, who unfortunately missed the spring game, will be looked to as the primary guys to stuff the run. Murphy looks like he will get a shot to play a big role once again for this defensive line, despite his struggles last season. Fox is back from his suspension and Brown talked this spring about how valuable it is to have his versatility back in the fold. Hester Jr. will still be a factor on passing downs, but an emergence from Shaw could limit the impact that he has beyond that. Evans missed the spring with an injury, but he should still remain a part of the rotation, I’ll be it with less reps than the last few seasons. Atkinson and Bingley-Jones both made impressions on the staff this spring and could enter the rotation if they can build on it in the fall. Thompson, Gabe Stephens and Jaybron Harvey are all young guys who could find themselves in those depth spots at JACK throughout the season, but Thompson seems to be the lean right now.
Brown has said he hopes to develop more depth here to limit the snaps the starters take, but it appears almost certain this will be a two-man show. Gray and Echols were really productive a year ago and one would expect more of the same from those two in a similar amount of reps. Cheeks probably has the best chance to crack the rotation of the other linebackers on the roster, but that is something that we’ll have to wait until fall to find out after he was limited in the spring. Caldwell, Campbell and Short have gotten better from what Brown said when talking about the unit, but it seems they still have a long way to go before they can earn significant reps.
This unit is probably the hardest to judge right now because of the injuries. Allen, Cavazos and Huzzie look to be the three that will rotate on the outside at corner and Huzzie looks like he may also factor in at nickel. Boykins still looks like the starter in that nickel spot, but if Huzzie can thrive there in fall camp, don’t be shocked if he loses some reps there after struggling so badly last season. Chatman appears as if he will be the primary depth option at corner, but Holloway impressed the staff in the spring and could also be a factor at some point this season. Hollins will also be able to provide some nice depth both in the nickel and on the outside. Safety is a much different story. Hardy and Biggers, the two starters from the end of last season, look like the most probable starters, but that seems far from a guarantee right now. Chapman and Conley have both started at different points in their careers and could push for starting jobs again in the fall. Allen seems like he is set to have a depth role as an in-the-box safety, but there is a chance with the lack of answers here that a strong fall camp could push him into a starting role. Jones is still new to the position and has a lot of learning to do, but with the lack of bodies here, he will likely appear on the three deep, at least until the two summer enrollees arrive.
Brown said that the goal of this unit is to become a game-changing one after being a good unit a year ago. Coe probably put a scare into Tar Heel fans when he missed a kick from 33 yards away on Saturday, but the expectation is that he will still be the guy as of right now. Maginness was added from Australia at punter, but Kiernan is coming off a career season so right now it is hard to see him being overtaken. Pettaway is expected to be the kick returner and punt returner after handling both those roles in the bowl game and thriving in the prior in the final few games of the year. Drew Little and Spencer Tripplett will again split the duties between punting and placekicking with Garrett Jordan waiting in the wings.