Spring camp in Chapel Hill gets underway on Tuesday, as Mack Brown’s squad looks to set the stage for one of the most highly anticipated football seasons on campus in recent memory. While there will be 18 starters returning for this Tar Heel team in 2021, there are still plenty of great position battles to keep an eye on as camp gets underway. Here are our top five position battles to keep tabs on during the next few weeks.
The Tar Heels have a lot of offensive production that they must replace from a historic offense and there is no place where that is more evident than at the running back. The Tar Heels lose both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who combined to produce 2,957 yards and 33 touchdowns, combining for 45.7% of the offensive production and 83.5% of the rushing yards for this Tar Heel team a year ago. The Tar Heels will have a large group of players that have the talent but lack the experience that will be hoping to replace him. It will start with a guy that doesn’t really lack in either of those areas, but will be working in his first year in a new system with the Tar Heels in Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler, who had a productive first four years with the Volunteers and is with the team for the spring after transferring back on January 12th. Sophomore D.J. Jones and former walk-on senior British Brooks appear as if they will be the biggest challengers to Chandler here out of the gate based on what we saw last year. Jones shined in the game against Western Carolina, his most significant action of the season and might be the most complete overall running back of the group. Brooks has come a long way since he entered Carolina as a walk-on back in 2018, starting the Orange Bowl game back in January and having some decent success. Junior Josh Henderson, the biggest running back of the group, and redshirt freshman Elijah Green, the speedster, will likely both get their chances, as well, but just don’t feel to be as big of threats to Chandler as Jones and Brooks do. True freshman Caleb Hood is the wild card in this race, especially with him making the move from quarterback to running back this offseason, but there is a lot of excitement around him, especially after what he showed at the position in some camps in the fall. There will almost certainly be a rotation for most of the year at the position, but this is going to be the most interesting position battle to watch as spring camp gets underway.
The Tar Heels will be getting both of their edge rushers from a year ago back in super seniors Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper, but there looks like there will be a push, at least, in the spring by the younger guys behind them for the starting jobs. Fox’s job seems to be pretty safe after a strong season where he led the team in sacks with 7.0, but Hopper’s looks like it could be up for grabs after he lost some reps and even the starting job at one point late in the season. Sophomore Des Evans is a big threat, as the former 4✮ prospect showed some promising flashes in his first season on campus and has added some necessary weight. Fellow sophomore Kaimon Rucker may be the biggest threat in here after being listed as a linebacker on the Tar Heels official roster following an extremely productive true freshman campaign that saw him do a phenomenal job for the team in run defense as much as anyone on the team, doing so with a hand in the dirt. Junior Chris Collins is the other player who saw extended reps as the season went along and looked solid in his reps after adjusting his body to the Jay Bateman defense during the previous year. If he is actually playing the RUSH end spot this season, Rucker might be the favorite to overtake Hopper here if anyone does in the spring.
Just like at the RUSH end positions, the Tar Heels will return both of their starters at this position from the majority of the 2020 season again this year, but this is a spot where the Tar Heels shouldn’t be afraid of finding an upgrade at. Both Trey Morrison and Don Chapman were picked on in coverage throughout the season and became less effective in run defense as the season progressed, meaning the door is probably open for other guys to step up and earn some reps or possibly even take over the starting jobs. Cam’Ron Kelly had some struggles of his own in the starts that he made, but was much more effective helping in the run game, especially later on in the season and will be the most likely to supplant one of the two this spring. Redshirt freshman Cameron Roseman-Sinclair may not have played much in his first season on campus, but he may have the most upside of anyone that is currently a safety on this roster with just how complete his game has the potential to be. True freshman early enrollee Dontavius Nash might be the best coverage man amongst this group, but will have some work to do when it comes to being able to help in the run game as he’ll make the move from corner, where he played in high school, to safety. Junior Giovanni Biggers is an underdog candidate with the flashes he has shown in his limited reps, especially with Tar Heels still looking for defensive playmakers. This will be a fun position to keep an eye on in the spring and potentially even into fall camp, but the ultimate goal should be to get the nickelback position shored up enough to be able to move Ja’Qurious Conley back to the position that the Tar Heels staff he would initially play at.
It seems like a safe bet that both Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek will be the starters on the interior of that front four for the Tar Heels, but behind them, there is set to be a fierce battle for reps. With Kaimon Rucker looking like he may move out to the edge, there could be a few more available than originally thought, but there is still a large, talented group that will be battling for reps. Sophomore Myles Murphy will be looking to build off of his strong finish to 2020 and earn the role as that top rotational option, while junior Jahlil Taylor will be looking to hold on to that role, which he handled for the majority of last season. Sophomore Clyde Pinder Jr. came in with the label as the gap eater in the middle of the defense and will try to prove that he has what it takes to handle that role behind Vohasek, something he wasn’t quite able to do in the limited reps he saw a year ago. Sophomore Kevin Hester Jr. was a bit of a surprise late in the season and is another name who will hope to fight for reps this year, while redshirt freshman Kedrick Bingley-Jones will be hoping to return from a severe lower leg that cost him all of his true freshman season after showing a lot of promise in the weight room in the winter. He is probably the best bet of the players that will be on the field for the first time this spring to make an impact, but both true freshman early enrollees, Keeshawn Silver and Jahvaree Ritzie have the talent to factor in, as well. The depth at this position is impressive to say the least and will worth monitoring throughout to see who is able to earn the most reps as the spring goes along.
This might quietly be the biggest battle on the team in the spring as this is basically the beginning of the quarterback battle to replace Sam Howell, which many expect will take center stage next offseason. Although he struggled a little bit in the garbage time reps he did see against Western Carolina and Miami, sophomore Jacolby Criswell comes in as the slight favorite over true freshman Drake Maye. Maye enrolling early is a huge benefit for him and will go a long way to allowing him to compete for this job as this battle extends into the fall. However, Criswell is a guy that Tar Heel fans seem to be quick to dismiss in this battle, but remember that he is someone that was deemed a near perfect fit for this offense when he committed and he has the potential to be a special quarterback in this system. This could be one of the most competitive battles of the spring and will likely only gain more attention if it stays neck-and-neck at the conclusion of spring ball.