The Tar Heels signed an 18 person early signing period back in December and over the weekend, twelve of those players are expected to arrive on campus as early enrollees. This group of twelve contain much of the top talent from this historic class that Mack Brown and his staff were able to put together, and with an offseason that is expected to a bit more normal than the 2020, this a group that will have a better chance than this year’s true freshman to come in and produce early. Let’s take a look at our rankings of the early enrollees that will have a chance to come in and make the biggest immediate impact in 2021.
12. OT Diego Pounds
This is no slight on Pounds, who comes in at over 300 lbs. and with the ability to play multiple positions, but the outlook of the position makes it tough to see him having a major impact early on. The Tar Heels offensive line unit will be one of the more veteran units in the entire country, as everyone who started a game for the team in 2020 is back. As we’ve seen for years, even though true freshmen have been playing more and more throughout the sport, the offensive line is a spot where it still takes time to become a contributor. One would expect that to be the case with Pounds this year.
11. QB Drake Maye
This is another case where an extremely talented player will not make much of an impact as a true freshmen barring an injury. Maye will enter the spring with a chance to compete for the backup quarterback job with incumbent backup Jacolby Criswell, but regardless, he will still be behind starter Sam Howell. The backup battle is still an important one, as it will set the stage for next offseason where the team will likely be replacing Howell. However, barring an injury, it’ll likely be a quiet first year on campus for Maye.
10. WR Kobe Paysour
Paysour is one of three receivers that will be enrolling early and while there is some playing time available with Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, it feels like he is the least likely to play early. The main reason is the skill set that he brings to the table, which is more technical, climb-the-ladder pass catcher, a role where the team will have some experienced options in Beau Corrales and Emery Simmons. Paysour will have the chance to come in and climb the depth chart, but with the veterans that are in front of him, it’s hard to rank him higher on this list.
9. WR J.J. Jones
Jones is another one of the three wide receivers coming in early and his skill set will give him a slightly better chance to come in and make an early impact. Jones' game is comparable to Dyami Brown’s and with him gone to the NFL, the Tar Heels will be in search of someone to replace his role in the offense this season. Brown’s brother, Khafre, will likely be the favorite to assume the role and guys like Antoine Green and Justin Olson will also be veterans who will be battling for reps here. Jones is a bit of a sleeper among the early enrollees and he, like Paysour, will have a chance to climb the depth. With so much veteran depth in front of him, though, it’s hard to rank him any higher here.
8. SDE Jahvaree Ritzie
The fact that we have Ritzie here shows just how deep and talented this early enrolling class is. The athletic interior defensive end has drawn comparisons to Jeffrey Simmons, a former first round pick of the Tennessee Titans who has an extremely productive career with Mississippi State. Ritzie may need to add a little more weight in the weight room this offseason, but the main reason he is where he is at on this list is because of the group of interior defensive lineman that the Tar Heels already have in place. Both Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek return after starting nearly every game in 2020 and some depth guys like Kaimon Rucker and Myles Murphy that had successful true freshman campaigns. The return of Kedrick Bingley-Jones and his fellow classmate Keeshawn Silver’s early arrival won’t make things easier either. Ritzie has plenty of talent and will have a chance to be a really good player for years to come, but with everything that will be around him this season, it’s tough to have him ranked any higher on this list.
7. WR Gavin Blackwell
Blackwell is the third receiver that will be enrolling early and he has the best chance of the receivers to contribute. Blackwell will more than likely play the majority of his career in the slot and that is a spot that will have some playing time available in the offseason with both Dazz Newsome and Rontavius Groves departing. Josh Downs looks poised to take over the starting role, but behind that, it’s unclear. Blackwell’s connection with Howell could definitely go a long way to helping him establish a role early. How much he’ll play is a bit of a question, but the opportunity is there and Blackwell has the talent to slide into the backup role and be able to contribute immediately.
6. ILB Power Echols
Echols is an extremely exciting prospect with his sheer athleticism and on-field intelligence, and he’ll have a chance to come in and earn a role
at inside linebacker. Jeremiah Gemmel and Eugene Asante are right now the projected starters, but Echols and fellow classmate Ranieria Dillworth, who we’ll talk about in minute, give the Tar Heels a talented enough combo behind that we could see more rotation at the position than we’ve seen in recent years if they can prove themselves. With Echols game masking that of Asante’s, it’s tough to see him beating out the veteran for the starting job, but there is still a chance that he could establish a nice rotational role in the early part of the season.
5. SDE Keeshawn Silver
Silver is the Tar Heels top rated prospect that will enroll early, but the reason that he is not higher on this list is because of what we talked about above with Ritzie. Silver possesses the talent to navigate this packed group of defensive linemen, but as we’ve seen with some of the Tar Heels other talented defensive linemen in the past, it takes time for the young guys in the trenches to settle in and handle the extra physicality that comes with the college game. While it may take some time, Silver is just too talented to not be able to get on the field and make an impact at some point in 2021.
4. RB Caleb Hood
Hood will enter as the team lowest rated early enrollee according to 247Sports Composite rankings, but he will have a chance to have a big impact early on in his career. First of all, many recruiting experts have said that Hood is a much better prospect than the rankings would suggest and those who have seen him in camps over the offseason really liked what they’ve seen from Hood in his first real action at running back. Hood already arrives on campus with the size that the Tar Heels prefer in their running backs and, even though he played quarterback in all three of the seasons that he played at the high school level, has the rushing production from the prep level to prove he has the ability to make things happen on the ground. The competition for snaps at running back is wide open and with Hood getting in early, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to earn himself some significant snaps in 2021.
3. CB DeAndre Boykins
Boykins has plenty of talent, but this is also just a good situation that he is walking into. If the starting lineup were to remain the same as last year, Boykins would be the favorite to take the backup job behind Ja’Qurious Conley, but the Tar Heels might be hoping he can take it a step further. If Boykins can impress enough, it may allow the team to move Conley to safety to aid the group back there that struggled throughout the majority of the season. Regardless, it looks like there is a solid chance that Boykins could contribute, but he’ll have a chance to have a season comparable to Conley’s 2020 season if enough things go right.
2. S Dontavius Nash
The defensive backfield is the spot that the early enrollees may have the best shot to make an early impact and with the struggles at safety, Nash might have an even better chance than Boykins to earn an early role. Nash needs to prove himself a bit in the box, but he will immediately enter as one of the team’s better coverage safeties after spending the majority of his high school career on the outside at corner in a heavy man coverage scheme. With the struggles that Trey Morrison and Don Chapman saw taking away the middle of the field, though, Nash will have a golden opportunity to earn some big snaps early.
1. OLB Ranieria Dillworth
We talked about the fact that Jeremiah Gemmel and Eugene Asante are the projected starters as of right now at linebacker for the Tar Heels as we head into the offseason, but if there is one person who can upset that apple cart, it’s Dillworth. There is a reason why this guy was such a highly coveted prospect and has drawn so many comparisons to guys like Isaiah Simmons and Tremaine Edmunds. He fits Jay Bateman’s defense about as well as any prospect in this class with his ability to cover sideline-to-sideline and handle himself in 1-on-1 coverage at linebacker, both helped by his tremendous speed and burst. Dillworth might just simply be too talented to keep off the field in 2021.