The Tar Heels spring game has come and gone as of Saturday, as the team closed out an exciting spring camp in front of the first crowd inside of Kenan Stadium in over a year. In the thirteen series between the Carolina and Tar Heel sides, nearly all of the active players on the roster got a chance to play on Saturday, giving us a great look at the makeup of this 2021 Tar Heel roster. Let’s take a look at the performance of each position from Saturday's spring game and where things appear to stand heading into the fall.
The main focus on the day was the backup quarterbacks, but returning starter and Heisman hopeful Sam Howell was the one stealing the headlines once again on Saturday, as he threw for 118 yards and one touchdown on 6-10 passing, completing some impressive throws down the field. Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye split the second-team reps with both guys struggling to connect with their receivers in the rain. Maye clearly looked like the more comfortable of the two on Saturday afternoon, with some nice throws that just weren’t hauled in by his receivers and some a couple of tuck and runs that showed off the speed that we have heard a lot about this spring. This set the stage for what should be a phenomenal backup quarterback battle when the Tar Heels begin preseason camp in the fall. Jefferson Boaz also saw some reps late in the game and produced the biggest carry of the day on his 38-yard touchdown run that put the final points of the day on the board.
The Tar Heels entered the spring with a running back competition that was about as wide open as it gets with six different players battling for a chance to earn reps. While it appeared that Ty Chandler and D.J. Jones entered the game as the two that had created a little bit of separation at the position, both of those guys had relatively quiet days in this one with the first-team offense. In the meantime, Josh Henderson and Caleb Hood had strong days with the second-team offense, combining to run for 68 yards and a touchdown on their 12 combined runs on Saturday. Elijah Green and British Brooks also saw their fair share of carries on Saturday but weren’t nearly as effective as Henderson and Hood were. While it’s hard to read too much into the spring, it feels like from what we’ve been hearing, this unit seems to be divided into three tiers right now. We’ll see if the reps start to resemble that when this team returns to the field in the fall as they attempt to figure out the rotation.
The Tar Heels are tasked with the challenge of replacing the tandem of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, who were the team’s top two receivers over the past two seasons. On Saturday, though, the receiver room showed that it has plenty of talented options to do just that. Josh Downs has had a big spring and he concluded that with an impressive 48-yard over-the-shoulder catch. Both Antoine Green and Emery Simmons had big catches down the field, as well, with Green receiving the most targets of any Tar Heel receiver on Saturday. Justin Olson had a nice catch along the sideline that was unfortunately called out of bounds and Kobe Paysour was targeted three times by Drake Maye after creating some nice separation, but unfortunately could only come down with one of those in the rain. J.J. Jones was quiet in this one, but saw plenty of action after a reportedly strong spring and should also be able to compete for reps on the outside come the fall. With Beau Corrales and Khafre Brown expected to return from injury in the fall, this group is set to be one of the most competitive in the fall on the outside as everyone battles for reps. In the slot, there appears to be no clear answer as to who backs up Josh Downs at this time, though, and Saturday didn’t provide much clarity. This will be something else to watch as we head into fall camp.
Prior to the news that Garrett Walston was going to return for his super senior season, the battle at tight end was expected to be for the starting job. With Walston back, the group has gotten an extra year to grow, allowing the battle to instead rage at backup tight end. While all of the guys reportedly had their flashes in camp, Kamari Morales had the biggest day of the tight ends on Saturday as both a receiver and blocker. Considering he is the veteran of the group, this performance and the fact that he was the starter for the second team likely means that Morales is a heavy favorite to maintain that backup tight end role that he held a year ago. The good news is, both John Copenhaver and Kendall Karr have the summer to continue to add weight and strength in the weight room and true freshman Bryson Nesbit will join the group to continue to push Morales in the fall.
As many of you may know, the Tar Heels return all five starters from a year ago here, so the focus has been on continuing to build depth, something that has gone very well so far this spring. The first team unit actually had a bit of a slow start in this one, but recovered nicely to have a solid day. Meanwhile, the second team unit put together a couple of very strong drives helping the Carolina team to get on the board first. The standouts of that second unit were Jonathan Adorno, who looked phenomenal especially when pull blocking, and William Barnes, who closed his major improvement this spring with a strong performance. Brown has said throughout the spring that the team, which had seven guys on the offensive line that they could trust a year ago, has added a couple of new members to the group that can be trusted. There is a chance that the team, which is expected to get Joshua Ezeudu, the starter at left guard, back from injury, can continue to add to that group in the fall.
Mack Brown said early in the spring that one of the goals for his defense this season was to be able to win some one-on-one battles up front and while that is still a work in progress, the good news is there are plenty of talented options that will be giving it a go. Tomari Fox has been absent from spring camp with an injury, opening the door for Myles Murphy to earn the first-team reps, which he did on Saturday. Although he and Raymond Vohasek were a bit quiet, they will both see plenty of snaps this season up front along with Fox. However, there will be plenty of talent that will push them in the fall, starting with the true freshman combination of Jahvaree Ritzie and Keeshawn Silver, the prior of which closed out his strong showing in the spring with a nice day on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Kedrick Bingley-Jones saw his first on-field action with the Tar Heels this spring and while he may not have had a major impact on Saturday, he’ll have a chance to make a serious push for reps in the spring with him being a full go after being limited for a majority of the spring. Two other guys who will also be pushing to have their name as part of the rotation that was a bit quiet on Saturday were Jahlil Taylor, who reportedly had a good spring for himself, and Clyde Pinder Jr.. There is a lot of talent here and the fall will be about sorting through the group and figuring out what the rotation will look like.
This is another group that has been aided by the return of a couple of super seniors and that was evidenced on Saturday. Tomon Fox was one of the veterans that sat out as a coach's decision to get a look at some of the more inexperienced, but just like a year ago, there were some things left to be desired on Saturday. Both Tyrone Hopper and Chris Collins struggled to make an impact in this one and Kaimon Rucker wasn’t quite as effective in this one as he was a year ago when he was a nice surprise in the front four for the team. Sophomore Des Evans was the bright spot, finishing with two tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and one sack. This unit is still looking for some of the younger guys to make a push and right now it feels like Evans and Rucker are the most likely guys to make that push. With so much uncertainty here, though, this sets up to be one of the more interesting position groups to watch when fall camp gets underway.
This is the one area defensively that the Tar Heels are tasked with replacing a starter, but strangely enough, this might be the unit that the Tar Heels are most confident in on this team outside of maybe the corners and the quarterbacks. Jeremiah Gemmel didn’t play on Saturday, but that was strictly a coach’s decision to get a better look at some of the younger depth pieces. If there were any questions as to whether or not Eugene Asante would be ready to take over vacated spot left behind by Chazz Surratt (there weren’t) he quieted those with a phenomenal showing in the middle of the first-team defense on Saturday, lining up all over the field and flying around to make four total tackles, including two tackles for a loss and two sacks. The other big headline here and one of the bigger storylines of the spring game as a whole was the performances of the two true freshmen who had arguably the two best performances of the day outside of Asante. Power Echols made his impact early and often on Saturday, as he finished with four total tackles of his own, including 0.5 for a loss and even made a nice play in coverage against Antoine Green for one of the Carolina defense’s four pass deflections. RaRa Dillworth made his presence felt later in the afternoon bursting through the middle to make a couple of plays in the backfield, as he closed his day with three total tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Both of those guys look poised to make a push for those backup roles behind Gemmel and Asante, as does sophomore Cedric Gray, who had himself a nice day in this one. Khadry Jackson was the guy from the group battling for the backup jobs that had the quietest day, but it is notable that he was the guy who got the start alongside Asante with the first-team defense. The battle for those two backup roles is setting up to one of the most competitive of the fall.
The Tar Heel defensive backs are a confusing group. At corner, the Tar Heels have to feel pretty confident with the three starting-caliber corners that they have on the roster right now, even though Storm Duck was out due to a lower leg injury on Saturday. Dae Dae Hollins had another solid day in coverage as he closed what was reportedly a good spring for him. In the nickel, Don Chapman looked solid, but was quite as effective in run defense as Ja’Qurious Conley was there this past season. Welton Spottsville got the start for the second team in the nickel, but true freshmen DeAndre Boykins had a better day than him out of that spot once he rotated in. The safety spots played pretty well in this on Saturday, a good sign for a unit that struggled with consistency a year ago. Interestingly enough, Sophomore Giovanni Biggers was the safety that started alongside Trey Morrison with the first-team unit and he had himself a nice performance in this one, as did redshirt freshman Cameron Roseman-Sinclair who started for the second team defensive unit. The interesting player to note was Ja’Qurious Conley, who came in with the second wave for the first-team defense, looked good out of the safety spot after cross-training there from his nickelback spot this spring. There are plenty of talented options here and the thing the Tar Heels have to do now is to find out which combination at safety and how much rotation allows them to have the most success on the field. This will be another spot worth taking notice of throughout fall camp and keeping an eye on who is seeing the most reps and the order in which they rotate in during the drills and scrimmages.
This was the one that we didn’t see much of on Saturday, but it’s a unit that appears to be in pretty good shape as they head into the summer. Only the placekickers saw action yesterday and Grayson Atkins showed his reliability, knocking through all of his attempts in the rain. The question here will be the depth behind him which is extremely unproven and would be less than ideal to have to use this season. Although we didn’t see them on Saturday, the team’s punting and kickoff roles are in good shape with Ben Kiernan and Jonathan Kim, who did miss the spring with a leg injury, back again this year. Kick returner and punt returner will be interesting areas to keep an eye on for this unit in the fall, as they are tasked with replacing both starters from a year ago.