Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA elected to grant all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility back in August, setting the table for the return of some veteran players to some of the nation’s top programs. The Tar Heels are among those who will have some major contributors returning for that extra season. We take a look at the five guys that utilized that extra year of eligibility for 2021 and rank them from five to one in terms of who could make the biggest impact this upcoming season.
5. Tyrone Hopper
All five of the players on this list are returning starters so it feels like, as of right now, they will all play some pretty significant roles this upcoming season. Hopper seems like the one that could lose his starting job this offseason, though, with talented guys like Des Evans and Chris Collins already pushing him for reps down the stretch of the season. Don’t get it wrong, Hopper will still push to have a significant role on this team, but with another offseason to improve, it wouldn’t be a shock if one of those two, especially Evans. Hopper played 621 snaps in the season, the second most of any member of the front four, but with his limited skillset and the projected evolution of some of the younger pieces, his impact could whittle a bit as the 2021 season progresses.
4. Grayson Atkins
Atkins really settled into a rhythm late in the season and coming back next year is big for both sides here. With Noah Ruggles in the transfer portal, Atkins will handle the starting duties once again next season and the building trust should allow the coaching staff to feel a little more confident about his range than they were throughout most of 2020. That could be important for this 2021 team, especially early on when they will be working through replacing four of their top red zone threats and overall offensive producers. As the season goes along, though, the hope would be that you won’t have to see Atkins as often in those long field goal situations and instead see almost all of his impact coming in extra point situations.
3. Garrett Walston
Walston’s return is big for the Tar Heels in many different ways, all revolving around what we just talked about above. The Tar Heels will be without their top two receivers from the past two seasons, so Walston will have a great chance to see some targets early one, especially if he can build off of what he was able to do late in the season and in the bowl game. He’ll also be back to help seal the edge for the young Tar Heels running backs that will be tasked with replacing Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who had huge seasons in 2020. With his ability to provide help in both of these aspects, we’ll give Walston an edge over Atkins.
2. Tomon Fox
Fox has quietly put together one of the more solid pass rushing careers in program history and will have a good chance to add to that in 2021. Although he has lacked some consistency, he still sits tied for fifth in program history with 21.0 career sacks and bringing back his veteran pass rushing presence is a big positive for this growing defense. Fox will without a doubt have a major impact on this team, as he should handle a similar amount of snaps as he did in 2020 and the Tar Heels are hoping that he could even reach that double-digit sack mark in 2021. The good news is, there is some depth behind him that will allow him to stay fresher a little bit further in the season than this past year, which could allow him to be more productive.
1. Beau Corrales
Corrales entered 2020 off of the best season of his career, catching 40 passes for 575 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 3 option in 2019. Corrales was off to another solid start this past season and even put together a career game against Florida State, the game in which he suffered a pseudo-season ending upper body injury. With Corrales taking the extra year of eligibility, he will now become the most proven returning target for the Tar Heels in 2021 thanks to Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, who are moving on to the NFL. Getting Corrales red zone ability will be welcome, but so will his reliable hands and ability to help in the intermediate passing game. Although guys like Khafre Brown and Josh Downs will hope to become the next stars in place of Brown and Newsome, Corrales will play a huge role in this offense for the entirety in 2021 and will be one of, if not the most, productive offensive player outside of Sam Howell.