The Heel Tough Blog began its offseason series this past week. The series will place the top players in Tar Heel football history at each position group into five different tiers to determine their standings in Tar Heel history. The series will continue today by looking at the five tiers of Tar Heel running backs.
Tier 1: Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, Amos Lawrence, Mike Voight, Leon Johnson
Tier 1 is a loaded group, but all four of the guys that have been placed in this group are extremely deserving. Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, the 1948 and 1949 runner-up for the Heisman trophy, is highly regarded as the best player in program history. The former World War II veteran could have landed on the list as either a quarterback or running back, but because he was drafted by the Washington Redskins as a halfback, we’ll place Justice amongst the running backs. In his time in Chapel Hill, he set the records for the most total yards of offense (4,883) and most total touchdowns (64) in program history. The total yards of offense record stood until 1994, and amongst running backs, wasn’t broken until 1996 by another member of this first tier. Justice was the driving force behind a stretch of four seasons where the Heels were 32-9-2, headlined by a 9-1-1 1948 season, where the Heels did spend a week ranked No. 1 in the country, the only time that the Heels have reached that mark in program history.
From one record setter to another, the next Tar Heel running back to be a part of Tier 1 is the program‘s all-time leading rusher. Lawrence’s mark of 4,391 career rushing yards has stood as the all-time mark since his career at Carolina concluded in 1980 and seems to be in no threat anytime soon. Neither does his standing as the only Tar Heel running back to run for 1,000+ yards in four straight seasons. Lawrence’s 881 carries also are tops in program history. His 28 rushing touchdowns are the least impressive of his career marks, but it is still a solid number. Lawrence‘s two best season came in his freshman and senior seasons in 1977 and 1980, two of the Tar Heel seven conference championship seasons.
Leon Johnson is easily the biggest staff stuffer on this list and it has landed him solidly in the top tier. Johnson holds the record for rushing touchdowns (43), receiving yards for a running back (1,288), receptions for a running back (151), total touches (948), total yards of offense for a non-quarterback (4,981) and total touchdowns by a non-quarterback (47). All of that stacks up to one of the greatest single careers in Tar Heel football history and one that helped to begin the building of Mack Brown’s success in Chapel Hill. Johnson only had one season with over 1,000 yards on the ground, but did finish every season with at least 1,000 yards of total offense.
We close Tier 1 with the man who locked down the running back position before Lawrence arrived. Mike Voight ranks second all-time in rushing yards (4,061), carries (843) and rushing touchdowns (42), landing him very solidly in Tier 1. Voight had a fantastic senior season (315 rush, 1,407 yds, 18 TD) that allowed him to break many of the program records previously held by a man we’ll find later on in this list, Don McCauley. The most impressive thing about Voight career: he accomplished almost all of his production in his final three seasons on campus.
Tier 2: Giovani Bernard, Kelvin Bryant, Don McCauley, Natrone Means
Tier 2 begins with the guy who may very well be the most talented running back to put on a Tar Heel uniform. Giovani Bernard only played in Chapel Hill for two seasons before leaving for the NFL, but in that time he compiled some great numbers. Bernard ran for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in both of his seasons on the field and also had 350+ yards receiving and 45+ receptions each season. If Bernard had continued on the pace that he was on, he would have easily owned almost all, if not all, of the program records as a running back. Bernard finished his college career with 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns on 423 career carries and 852 receiving yards and 6 receiving touchdowns on 92 career catches.
For the next member of Tier 2, we head back to the early 80’s. Kelvin Bryant helped the Tar Heels to extend their streak of seasons with at least one 1,000 yard rusher to nine seasons thanks to three straight seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing to finish his career. Bryant ranks fifth in program history in rushing yards (3,267) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (32), but his 5.5 yards per carry is the best of any running back with over 500 carries in program history. Bryant was part of a Tar Heel backfield that averaged over 260.0 rushing yards per game in each season from 1980 to 1982.
Tier 2 also contains one of the Tar Heels initial record-setters, Don McCauley. McCauley got his career off to a solid start, but really began to round into form as a junior. His senior season, though is the one that all will remember. McCauley ran for 1,863 yards and 22 touchdowns, both program records for a season, in the 1970 season. McCauley’s 3,315 rushing yards rank fourth in program history and his 32 touchdowns on the ground are tied for fourth. McCauley was not too shabby out of the backfield either, catching 52 career passes for 786 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers put McCauley in the exclusive group of running backs to finish his career with 4,000 yards of total offense (4,101) and 35 career touchdowns (37).
The final member of this tier is Natrone Means. Means and Tier 3 member Ethan Horton have almost identical career numbers, but one area gives Means the edge and propels him in this tier. That difference come in the form of rushing touchdowns. Means finished his career with 34 rushing touchdowns, a number that ranks fourth in program history. Means is tied for sixth in career rushing yards with 3,074 yards on 605 carries, which ranks fifth in program history. Means recorded over 800+ yards in all three of his seasons and also recorded double-digit rushing touchdowns in each of those three seasons.
Tier 3: Elijah Hood, Ethan Horton
Tier 3 contains two very interesting running backs to judge. Elijah Hood, another extremely talented running back, put together the best season in program history since McCauley’s 1970 season. In 2015, Hood ran for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns on 218 carries to help lead the Tar Heels to their first ever ACC Championship Game appearance. While there may have been some inconsistent moments from Hood, his 2,580 rushing yards do rank eighth in school history and his 29 rushing touchdowns rank seventh. His 6.0 yards per carry is what has him firmly in the tier, as that number ranks first among players with over 200 carries in their career.
The other member of Tier 3, Ethan Horton, was part of the loaded backfields in Chapel Hill during the early 80s, which may have kept from being higher on the list. At one time, Horton, Amos Lawrence, Kelvin Bryant and Tyrone Anthony all patrolled the Tar Heel backfield. Horton ran for 3,074 yards in his career, which ranks sixth all-time in program history, but what keeps him from being in Tier 2 is the fact that he ranks 12th in program history with 22 rushing touchdowns in his career. The Tar Heel ring-of-honor member is still a solid Tier 3 running back.
Tier 4: Tyrone Anthony, Ronnie McGill, T.J. Logan, Ken Willard
Tier 4 kicks off with another member of the early 80’s backfields, Tyrone Anthony. Anthony’s numbers were limited a bit due to the other great running backs that were around him, but they were still very solid. Anthony was never the full-time starter in Chapel Hill, but finished his career with three straight seasons of over 600 yards. Anthony would run for 1,063 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior and his 2,516 career rushing yards places him ninth in program history. One can only wonder where Anthony could have been had the ever been the full-time No. 1 option.
The next member of Tier 4 is the first and only John Bunting-era running back to appear on this list. Ronnie McGill’s career was disrupted by injury, but he still was able to put together a good career on the Hill. McGill’s 24 career rushing touchdowns sit 11th in program history, while his 2,393 yards is currently 12th all-time. While his numbers might not be mind blowing, McGill was very consistent and got the ball into the endzone.
Similar to Tyrone Anthony in this tier, T.J. Logan put together a very respectable career despite never being the No. 1 option. Logan ran for 2,165 yards, the 13th most in Tar Heel history, and 19 touchdowns, which ties for 14th. Logan also had a solid career as a receiving back and kick returner which helped land him in Tier 4.
The final member of Tier 4 was one of the program’s early record holders in Ken Willard. Willard was the first full-time Tar Heel running back to ever run for over 2,000 yards in career (2,043). His 19 rushing touchdowns are solid. Willard's numbers improved in each of his three seasons in the backfield in Chapel Hill, peaking with his 1964 season where he finished with 1,054 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns.
Tier 5: Curtis Johnson, Ryan Houston, Shaun Draughn
In the final tier of this list, we look at three very different running backs, including a pair of teammates. We start with the brother of Tier 1 running back Leon Johnson, Curtis Johnson. Johnson sits just one yard shy of 2,000 rushing yards in his career, but his 1,999 yards ranks 16th in program history and his 20 touchdowns are currently 13th. Johnson’s 5.7 yards per carry is the third highest mark of any running back with over 300 carries, though, which is the main reason he lands on this list. His 1993 season showed that if he had seen more carries, he would likely be a bit higher on this list.
The next two members were teammates in Chapel Hill during the Butch Davis-era. Ryan Houston is here simply based one thing: he put points on the board. Houston’s 25 career rushing touchdowns are tied for ninth in program history and 397 carries to reach that number is easily the least of any Tar Heel running back to hit that mark. Houston was never the Tar Heels feature back, rushing for only 1,482 yards in his career and averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. Still, he was effective in the redzone and that’s why he lands on this list.
His redzone role limited his former teammate, Shaun Draughn, from ranking higher on this list. Draughn put together a solid career behind 2,070 rushing yards, however, with just 10 rushing touchdowns and not much in the way of receiving or returning stats, it’s hard to put Draughn higher on this list. With three straight seasons of over 500 yards rushing to finish his career, though, it was not possible to leave him off the list.