Updated: May 26, 2020
As we enter May, it's time for the annual offseason series. This year, we're going in-depth with a look at the best player to ever where each jersey number. This is a ten part series where we will go ten numbers at a time for ten weeks. This week, we look at the best to wear numbers 21-30 in Tar Heel football history.
#21: Earl Winfield
We begin with a number that has seen a decent amount of success overall, but doesn’t quite pose the heavy hitters that some of the numbers pack. Jomo Legins and Da’Norris Searcy both had successful careers in the secondary while wearing the number and Chazz Surratt is still built on what looks to be a strong career in the jersey. Randy Jordan doesn’t get talked about much with all of the historic running backs that have come through Chapel Hill, but he had some nice seasons while donning the No. 21. We’ll go with Earl Winfield here, though, as our choice for the best to ever wear the number. Winfield, who finished his career with 107 catches, 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns, was once the program record holder for career receptions and yards and still remains in the top 20 in all three categories. Winfield closed his career with two very productive seasons, including a senior season where he finished with 696 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, which ranked second and first in the ACC, respectively, earning him first-team All-ACC honors.
#22: Charlie Justice
There is a reason that this number has not been worn since 1949 and this might be the easiest answer in this entire series. Where do we even start with Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice? The College Football Hall of Fame inductee set the program record with 4,833 yards of total offense, a number that stood until 1994, and 64 total touchdowns, a number that only four other players in program history have been able to match since. Justice was not only a All-Southern Conference selection in all four of his seasons on campus, he was also a two-time first team All-America selection and finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy both 1948 and 1949, the closest any Tar Heel has ever come to taking home the most prestigious award in college football.
#23: Don McCauley
This shocked me a bit, but the No. 23 is not only a successful number for the Tar Heels on the basketball court. Guys like Mahlon Carey and Jimmy DeRatt had productive careers on the defensive side of the football, while Randy Marriott and Jim Camp also shined in the jersey on the offensive side. This debate took a while, but we’ll go with Don McCauley by a hair over the best special teamer in program history Brian Schmitz. McCauley is a college football hall of fame inductee and put together a great career in a Tar Heel uniform. As a junior in 1969, McCauley reached the 1,000 yard mark for the first time, finishing with 1,092 rushing yards and eight touchdowns earning first team All-ACC honors and winning ACC Player of the Year. However, that was just setting the stage for a historic 1970 season where he would set a school, conference and NCAA record for rushing yards in a season, running for 1,720 yards and 22 touchdowns on 360 carries, breaking O.J. Simpson’s prior NCAA record. That number still sits as the top mark for a single season in program history and second in ACC history. He would earn first team All-ACC honors, consensus All-American honors and would finish ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting, one of only four Tar Heels in program history to finish top ten in the Heisman voting.
#24: Dexter Reid
The overall success here isn’t that great, but there are some nice headliners at the top. Ike Oglesby had a nice three year career in the Tar Heel backfield in the early 70s, while Bernardo Harris and Nick Weiler finished their careers strong while donning the jersey. However, Dexter Reid is the unquestioned answer here. Reid finished his career with 466 total tackles, a number that was an ACC record for a defensive back before Quin Blanding would break that record in 2017. That number is still the best among Tar Heel defensive backs and his 166 total tackles in 2002 is the second most in program history, trailing only Buddy Curry’s 1979 season. Reid was a two time All-ACC member, earning first team honors in that phenomenal 2002 season.
#25: Irvin Holdash
This is an extremely top heavy number, but there are some good names at the top. Javonte Williams is still writing his story in the uniform and is already off to a fantastic start, while Ronnie McGill is already quietly one of the most successful running backs in program history. Eric Streater was another one of those receivers from those early 1980s that put up some good numbers in the jersey. The choice here, though, is the man who has his No. 25 in the ring of honor, Irv Holdash. Holdash started every game for the Tar Heels from 1948 to 1950 at both center and outside linebacker, earning first team All-American in 1950. He also earned first team All-Southern Conference honors in each of his final two seasons and was respected as one of the best players that many coaches ever played against.
#26: Giovani Bernard
This is a number that has seen plenty of success in the defensive backfield, headlined by strong careers from both Quinton Savage and Sean Crocker. However, we go to the offensive side for the best to ever wear this number. Giovani Bernard is the only running back besides Amos Lawrence to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his active seasons with the team. In just two active seasons, Bernard ran for 2,481 yards, a mark that is tenth in program history, and 25 touchdowns, a mark that is tied for ninth in program history. Bernard earned first team All-ACC honors in both 2011 and 2012 at running back and also took home first honors for return specialist in 2012. He was also selected as the 2011 recipient of the Brian Piccolo Award, which is awarded to the most courageous player in the ACC each year. Bernard was on pace to break the school record for career rushing yards had he stayed all four seasons, but he bolted after two for the opportunity to play in the NFL.
#27: Bracey Walker
There is a long line of success here in the defensive backfield throughout the year. Players like Jack Davenport and Brian Voolteich set the path for the modern success that has been had in the jersey. Kareen Taylor put together a nice career in the mid-2000s at safety and we have to point out the success that Jonathan Linton was able to find in his time wearing the number at running back. The debate here comes down to two of the most successful safeties in program history. Deunta Williams was one of the best playmaking safeties in program history, intercepting 12 passes in his four year career, but with Bracey Walker being the more complete overall player we’ll give him the slight advantage here. Walker finished his college career with 263 total tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass deflections, earning All-ACC honors in both his junior and senior seasons, the latter of which was a first team selection. In 1993, he earned first team All-American honors along with his first All-ACC honors and added the 1993 Sports Illustrated’s National Special Teams Player of the Year award to complete what was a phenomenal senior season, capped off by a huge showing in the bowl game against Mississippi State.
#28: Sean Boyd
The No. 28 provides some thin pickings compared to most of the numbers that we’ve seen so far. Tim Morrison, Stuffy Hewitt and D.J. Walker all put together decent careers while wearing the number, but Sean Boyd will be our pick here. Boyd was one of the key members of the Mack Brown-era secondary, starting for three seasons at free safety. He finished his Tar Heel career with 228 total tackles and seven interceptions, earning All-ACC honors in the best season of his career, 1993, where he finished with 70 total tackles and four interceptions.
#29: Robert Williams
This number has a very nice track record, headlined by a few defensive stars. This one was another tough decision because all three of the top players to wear this jersey have good arguments for why they could be the best to wear it. Errol Hood put together a very successful three year career as a starter in the jersey, leading the Tar Heels in interceptions as both a junior and senior. Darrell Nicholson got his career off to a strong start with ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 1978 and was a first team All-ACC selection in 1980. However, by the slimmest of margins, our selection for the best to wear the No. 29 is another Mack Brown-era defensive back, Robert Williams. While Dre Bly was the standout corner on those mid-90s Tar Heel teams, many former teammates have said that Williams might have been the better pure cover corner. He earned second team All-ACC in 1996 before closing his career with first team honors in 1997 and finished his career with four interceptions. As the Tar Heel Blog called him, the criminally-underrated Williams doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he deserves for the success of mid-90s secondaries.
#30: Willie Harris
We close this edition out with another number that has a nice resume. Ed Sutton shined in the jersey back in the mid-50s, while Tommy Hibbard put together a nice punting career while donning the number in the early 2010s. David Thorton’s story of going from a walk-on to becoming one of the best linebackers in the country is a great one, but it’s just not enough for him to be named the best here. We have to go with one of the stars of the early 80s defenses, defensive back Willie Harris. Like Williams above, the interception numbers weren’t mind-blowing, but he still had a great career as a cover corner. Harris earned first team All-ACC in both the 1982 and 1983 seasons for a Tar Heel pass defense that allowed just 147.8 passing yards per game during those two seasons.