Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Mack Brown’s first spring back in Chapel Hill wrapped up on Saturday afternoon with the spring game that took place in Kenan Stadium for the first time since 2015. Saturday was also the conclusion of some major spring position battles. Let’s look at some of those battles and where they stand after Saturday.
We mentioned this in the recap of the spring game, but it’s worth mentioning again. True freshman Sam Howell entered Saturday’s game rumored to be trailing redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder in the race to start on August 31st. If that gap did exist, it doesn’t after Saturday, as Howell look fantastic, throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown. He did throw an interception, but it was a pass that went through the hands of Corey Bell Jr. after a on-target throw. Ruder had a solid day, as well, going 5-7 for 143 yards, including a 77-yard completion to Carl Tucker in the first half. The favorite to win job entering the day, Fortin, completed just two of his six pass attempts for 39 yards and struggled to move the offense down the field. Saturday showed that this race is nowhere near over, and with the talent that all three of these guys possess, this should be a fun battle that will extend well into fall camp and possibly beyond.
No. 2 CB1
Both Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison had strong performances on Saturday but the story in the secondary may have been the other starting cornerback job, which is in the midst of a fierce battle. The Heels received some information that may have gotten them closer to making a decision on who may get the start there in Charlotte. Junior Greg Ross Jr. got the start on Saturday and looked really solid, helping to hold starting outside receivers Beau Corrales and Dyami Brown to just one combined reception on two targets. Sophomore Tre Shaw had a decent day for himself, as well, including a nice pass breakup on a deep ball to Roscoe Johnson in the second half. True freshman Storm Duck showed some nice flashes, too, including the 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown to seal the game for Team Carolina, but also had a few freshman moments, which have to be expected. With his experience, Ross Jr. took a step towards the starting job on Saturday, but this race isn’t quite over just yet.
With the news of Jay-Jay McCargo’s retirement due to repeated injuries, this battle lost what was likely going to be one of its top competitors in Ed Montilus, who will almost certainly be the Heels starting left guard against South Carolina. That leaves redshirt freshmen Joshua Ezeudu and William Barnes to battle it out for the lone offensive line that will be up for grabs in the fall camp. Ezeudu should come in with a healthy lead in this race after a strong performance on Saturday with the first team unit. Javonte Williams had two big runs behind him, including the first touchdown of the afternoon for Team Carolina. Barnes wasn’t nearly as impressive with the second team, which has led to Ezeudu’s edge. Expect this to be a solid battle in the fall, but if Ezeudu can build on what he showed in spring, he may be able to grab that starting job early.
Although we didn’t see the full special teams unit on display on Saturday, we were able to get our first in-depth look at the punting situation and what was displayed was not encouraging. Both redshirt freshman Mats Pokela and senior Mike Selsor had a chance to punt against no pressure on Saturday, but neither punt was a strong one. The fact that the news coming from camp has been similar means that there is a real chance that fall enrollee Ben Kiernan could win the starting job if he is able to impress when fall camp begins. This should be an extremely interesting battle to keep an eye on that could work its way onto the field this fall.
Noah Ruggles entered spring camp as the heavy favorite to win this job, but some struggles at times in the middle of camp motivated the Heels to land a backup plan in Appalachian State transfer Michael Rubino. Mack Brown liked what he saw late in camp from Ruggles and had to like what he saw on Saturday also, where he knocked through two extra points and connected on field goals of 33 and 43 yards, the latter of which was to “win” the game. Senior walk-on Cooper Graham also looked solid on his two extra point attempts and handled both kickoffs, a role he may handle this fall. Ruggles established some cushion with Saturday’s performance, but if he slips up, Rubino and Graham will both be waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
One of the top three battles we encouraged you to keep an eye on on Saturday didn’t receive many answers, if any. Junior Rontavius “Toe” Groves, the favorite to win this battle, caught just one pass for three yards and did limp off to the sideline in the first half before returning in the second half. Junior Roscoe Johnson had a solid day, but only registered the one catch, a 42-yard touchdown on 3rd & 13 to get Team Tar Heels on the board. However, redshirt freshman Antoine Green did not play and was limited in spring camp, and he’ll combine with three true freshman to make the race even more interesting in the fall. Johnson definitely helped himself on Saturday, but the battle is one that should progress well into fall camp.
While there is plenty of depth ahead of this battle, this will still be an interesting one this fall if you like to dig deeper into the depth chart. With Jordon Brown transferring and Antwuan Branch not a part of the team in the spring, redshirt freshmen Devon Lawrence, who appears to have moved back into the backfield after an early switch to slot receiver to begin the spring, and British Brooks, a preferred walk-on who GoHeels.com’s Pat James to us on the Heel Tough Blog Podcast on Thursday he really liked to take over the role after Brown’s transfer. Following Saturday’s game, many would agree with James’ thinking, as Brooks had a couple of hard runs on his way to 37 yards rushing on nine carries. Lawerence wasn’t nearly as productive, rushing for just 16 yards on his five carries and also coughing up a fumble that Storm Duck would return to seemingly end Team Tar Heels hopes of a comeback. Fall enrollee Josh Henderson will add his name into this race when he joins the team for fall camp, but as of right now, Brooks may have given himself a slight edge on Saturday.