If you follow college football or the NFL Draft in-depth, you know by this point that the Ole Miss Rebels will produce three of the NFL Draft’s top wide receivers. D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge are all expected to be selected in May’s draft, with many expecting that all three could be off the board before the fifth round. The man who crafted the offense that produced these three has since made the move this offseason to Chapel Hill to work under Mack Brown and the question for many has become, who could be that feature wide receiver that could excel under in Phil Longo’s air raid offense that he will be bringing to Chapel Hill?
The obvious candidate if you had told someone during last season that the change would be made mid-season would have been junior of Anthony Ratliff-Williams, but his decision to depart for the NFL means that there will be a new focus of the Tar Heel passing game in 2019.
The favorite in most people’s minds, and rightfully so, is the 5’11, 185 lbs. junior slot receiver Dazz Newsome. The Hampton, VA product had a breakout year in 2018, after his was sparingly used as a freshman, following a brief appearance against the Louisville Cardinals. Newsome finished his sophomore season with 44 receptions for 506 yards and two touchdowns and those numbers should increase with the team’s leading receiver in Ratliff-Williams gone.
One of the questions people will ask is whether who starts quarterback will matter. Newsome had two of his best games of the season while Cade Fortin was under center against Virginia Tech and NC State. Newsome caught 11 passes for 144 yards, but did not catch a touchdown from Fortin. Still, in both games, Newsome was the most heavily targeted receiver for the Tar Heels by a wide margin. Fortin is the favorite to start when the season begins, but there is a chance that fellow redshirt freshman Jace Ruder or true freshman Sam Howell could hold down the job, as well. In Ruder’s limited reps in the Georgia Tech game, Newsome was not targeted a single time and with Howell being a true freshman, Newsome has not had any prior experience with him. The good news is, though, both guys will have the entirety of spring and fall camp to build a rapport with Newsome, so expect him to be a heavy contributor no matter who is running the offense.
The other question many have is what type of effect do slot receivers have in Longo’s offense? The answer: a sizable one. This past season featured DaMarkus Lodge almost exclusively in the slot for the Rebels and he would put together a career year despite A.J. Brown’s 1,000 yards season. Lodge finished second on the team in receptions (65) and receiving yards (877) and third in touchdown receptions (4). The concern with those stats is that they may have been boosted by the neck injury that cost D.K. Metcalf the final five games of the season. It is a fair criticism, so let’s look back at 2017. As part of one of the most successful offenses in the country, the Rebels two slot receivers, Lodge and Van Jefferson, combined for 83 receptions that resulted in 1,154 yards and 8 touchdowns. The stats show that Longo’s offense lends well to a slot receiver being successful.
Newsome’s playmaking ability should allow him to be a key part of the Tar Heels new attack and is what makes him the favorite to thrive in this system. Newsome showed last season that he has the shiftiness necessary to get the important yards after the catch and has the hands necessary to be a go-to-receiver. With the air raid offense installed and a quarterback that will be able to get the ball downfield more, as well, expect Newsome to be one of the Tar Heel receivers that will thrive the most in the new system.