Updated: Jan 5
Saturday in Chapel Hill felt like a gigantic metaphor. The day started out cloudy and rainy with little hope for clearing prior to game time. However, about an hour before kickoff, the clouds part and sun shined on what felt like a brand new day in Kenan Stadium.
The football program is currently going through that process and it started on Saturday when the team hosted their first spring game in two years. With Mack Brown standing behind the offense on every play breaking things down, Team Carolina would defeat Team Tar Heels 24-10, despite what was deemed an 18-point field goal at the end for Noah Ruggles. Let’s take a look at what we learned in the spring game.
The Quarterback Battle is Far From Settled
For the first time since 2015, this is actually a good thing in a quarterback battle. All three quarterbacks had their moments, with favorite Cade Fortin actually having the worst day of the quarterbacks. True freshman Sam Howell looked the best of the group, throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 10-16 passing. Jace Ruder also put together a solid day, completing 5 or his 7 passes for 143 yards and added a rushing touchdown, but his numbers were heavily aided by a 77-yard completion to Carl Tucker in the first half. There is still a long way to go in this quarterback race and if there was any separation heading in, there is none between these three now. Should be an interesting fall camp for the quarterback position once again, but this time for all the right reasons.
Defensive Depth Limited This Defense on Saturday
Many fans were thoroughly displeased with the defense's performance on Saturday, but there is an explanation that will help ease some anxiety about this unit. The Heels were without as many as five defensive starters and a handful of key depth players and it showed. Take the secondary for example. We heard so much over the past couple of weeks about the lack of depth at corner and while that was on Saturday, safety might have been the more concerning position. With Myles Dorn, Myles Wolfolk, D.J. Ford, Javon Terry and Drew Homschek out of the lineup, the Heels had just two safeties active. That’s right, two. Both Bryson Richardson and Graham Eklund played nearly the entire game and it showed at times. The front seven also lacks depth and while it wasn’t on display quite like the secondary was, you could notice some of the struggles because of the lack of rotational options. With some key pieces returning for fall camp, that should help, but the Heels will still be a thin team defensively this season.
Corey Bell Jr. and Javonte Williams Lead Offensive Standouts
Bell Jr. had been raved about all spring following his move to wide receiver and was fantastic on Saturday. Bell Jr. was targeted six times and caught five for 67 yards, running string route and making a couple of defenders miss in the open field. His one incompletion, though, was a pass that went through his hands and was intercepted by Dominique Ross. Javonte Williams built on a strong finish to last season by rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on six carries, all with Team Carolina. Other offensive players who had good days included Dazz Newsome, who caught three of his four targets, all of which came on the first drive of the game with Sam Howell at quarterback, for 68 yards, British Brooks, who ran for 37 yards on nine carries and Joshua Ezeudu, who had a string day at right guard with the No. 1’s.
Walk-On Linebacker Headlines Defensive Standouts
This headline may concern you when you first read it, but Alex Nobles really did have a great day for himself. The redshirt freshman walk-on finished with five total tackles, including 3.0 tackles for a loss. Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison both had strong days in the secondary, with both combining for three pass breakups and six total tackles. Rene looked the best of the two, though, blanketing just about every receiver he was matched up against, including two pass breakups in the endzone. Others who stood out defensively include walk-on defensive end Hunter Sheridan, who recorded four total tackles, two sacks and 3.0 tackle for a loss, and Kayne Roberts, who tallied three total tackles.
Kicking Game In Good Shape, Punting Not So Much
Both spots were looking for replacements when they entered spring camp, but on Saturday, those race turned out to be in totally different spots than the others. Both kickers, Noah Ruggles and Cooper Graham, had strong days, hitting all of their kick attempts, including Ruggles hitting a 43-yarder to “win” the game. The punting game, however, struggled mightily. While the punters did not receive many reps, both Mats Pokela and Mike Selsor had tough days and that was with no pressure from a return team. It will be interesting to see what true freshman Ben Kiernan will bring to the table when he joins the team in the fall.