By R.L. Bynum
When you’re about to play the program’s first major bowl game in 71 years, it isn’t the best time to reboot an offense. But that’s just what No. 13 North Carolina is doing after its two best running backs and one of its best receivers opted out of the Orange Bowl.
Running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, as well as receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt, all opted out of the 8 p.m. Saturday matchup with No. 5 Texas A&M (8–1) in Miami Gardens, Fla., as they prepare for the NFL draft.
“If you had a better opportunity for you, you would take it,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “That’s what you’re gonna do. So, really and truly, we should be celebrating the success that those four guys had because we wouldn’t be in the Orange Bowl without them.”
Being without those four players for the Orange Bowl just added to what has been a strange 2020 season in which the Tar Heels (8–3) have dealt with the pandemic challenges well.
“I do think that the decision-makers need to look at expanding the playoff because when you look at guys that are opting out, nobody’s opted out of the playoffs,” Brown said. “So, obviously in decision-makers’ minds, the players, the families, the third parties — whoever’s involved — the playoff is more important now than the bowl games.”
UNC’s running threat at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday won’t be nearly as good as during the last visit to that stadium when Carter (308 yards) and Williams (226) combined for an FBS-record 544 yards in the Tar Heels’ 62–25 win over Miami.
Williams practiced with the team last week and Coach Brown didn’t find out that he would opt out until Saturday. The team didn’t practice Monday and Brown said part of the reason was that the coaching staff was still figuring out their approach offensively.
Brown isn’t sure what led Williams to decide to opt-out days after his teammates made that decision. The NFL report on Williams hasn’t come back yet, so that didn’t influence the decision.
“It seems to me that someone has advised them not to play in the ball game because they had such great games against Miami and they really don’t need to show themselves anymore and there’s a possibility they could get hurt,” Brown said. “So, I would think that that’s probably been involved with the family decision-making, more than anything else.”
Replacing carries from Carter and Williams — two dynamic, proven running backs — with carries from junior British Brooks (5–10.5, 200 pounds), sophomore Josh Henderson (5-11.25, 210) and freshman Elijah Green (5-11.5, 200, who is in the top photo) isn’t exactly a plug-and-play situation. It’s not just the running threat that has to be replaced, but also the pass-blocking skills.
Another talented young running back, D.J. Jones, won’t be available because of a foot injury.
The UNC depth chart released Monday lists the starter as Brooks or Henderson.
“Now we’ve got three days to figure out what we’re going to do without Javonte and knowing that we didn’t have the other three,” Coach Brown said.
Adjusting got tougher once Brown found out that Williams had opted out of the Orange Bowl.
“We’re in a position right now where we’re actually rediscussing that,” Brown said. “With Javonte, we’ve got a lot of receivers that have played. It wasn’t going to be that different because Javonte is a great player. He’s one of the best in the country. So, he would have just gotten more reps, he would have gotten more touches and we thought he was excited about that.
“But now we’ve got to look at what is best,” he said. “So, actually yesterday we spent all day and today we’ll spend all day [figuring that out]. One of the reasons we’re not practicing today [is that we’re] trying to figure out what we’re going to do differently since Javonte is not playing.”
Quarterback Sam Howell has the most net rushing yards on the bowl roster at 121, followed by Jones (65), Green (55), Brooks (46), Henderson (46) and Jacolby Criswell (26). The longest runs are from Howell (30 yards), Brooks (17), Henderson (16), Green (15), Dazz Newsome (15) and Jones (12). The rushing touchdown leaders are Howell with five and one each from Newsome and Jones.
“What I’ve seen from British is he’s really good and really patient at finding the holes and finding,- fitting off the guard and knowing when to cut it up and when to bounce the ball,” inside linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said of Brooks. “But he’s also really good at his angle routes, running out of the backfield. Same with Josh Henderson. They have very good speed just like Javonte and Mike, and I feel like what Mike has set in the running back room and what Javonte has set in the running back room, that’s just a picture to show that UNC is going to have good backs for a long time.”
Sophomore Eugene Asante will take Surratt’s place at linebacker and junior wide receiver Antoine Green will get more action without Dyami Brown.
UNC said that defensive backs Obi Egbuna and Storm Duck are being evaluated this week and it will be determined by Saturday if they will play in the Orange Bowl.
Pool photo by Robert Willett