By R.L. Bynum
North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo enjoyed a high-energy Christmas morning with his four kids and spent that afternoon coming up with a game plan for the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M.
The morning gave him some nice holiday memories but the work he did in the afternoon had a short shelf life.
The next day, he threw out a lot of that work when he found out that a key part of that plan, running back Javonte Williams, had decided to opt-out of the 8 p.m. Saturday game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Longo had to come up with a new plan for the 30 plays he expected to produce Williams carries.
“You have to make your adjustments,” Longo said Tuesday. “We’ve got to take 30 reps and we’ve got to distribute them and spread them out to the other weapons that we do have. So yeah, there was some game plan adjusting going on over the weekend, and we just kind of put that to the test today in practice, and it went very well.”
Obviously, junior British Brooks, sophomore Josh Henderson and freshman Elijah Green can’t replicate what Williams and Michael Carter would have brought to the Orange Bowl.
“They all know the offense real well. They do a good job pass protecting,” Longo said. “What they don’t have are all those reps that Michael and Javonte took for us this year. And so they have the practice reps. As I’ve alluded to in the past, our ones and our twos — our blue offense and our white offense — get equal reps in practice, so they’ve had equal preparation on the year, so they know the system. It’s just the game reps and the actual game experience against the live opponent that they don’t have.”
Longo said that just like when a player goes down with an injury, the Tar Heels haven’t spent time in practice talking about how they are adjusting without Williams, Carter, wide receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt.
“I think when you handle it that way and you don’t make a big deal out of it, it becomes not a big deal,” Longo said. “And that’s not to downplay the impact that those guys have had on this program over the last two years. We certainly all know that. But we also have a game to win, and we have guys that are going to suit up, and so we’re going to move forward with them.”
Leave it to quarterback Sam Howell, who has the same calm demeanor on the field regardless of the situation, to minimize the effect of the opt-outs on UNC’s chances even though some of his best weapons all season will be unavailable.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been much of a distraction,” Howell said. “Those guys, they made the decision that they thought was best for them, and we all respect their decisions, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do. We have a football game on Saturday, and we’ve got to go win the football game. We really can’t worry about any of that. We’ve just got to move forward. That’s really the message I try to relay to these guys. We have a lot of guys who need to step up and make some plays for us this weekend for us to have a chance to win.”
Losing one of the country’s most dangerous deep threats in Brown, who had 55 catches for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns, leaves quite a void for the Tar Heels’ offense.
“For me, it’s nothing different,” Howell said. “I’m going to prepare how I’m going to prepare and then just execute the play that he calls. I’m not going to try to do anything more than I usually do. I am who I am and I’ll just go out there and play my game. I’m definitely excited for these younger guys to have a chance to really show what they’ve got because we really haven’t seen them play any snaps that really mean anything this year.”
Unlike with the challenges created by playing without Carter and Williams, there is plenty of talent in the wide receiver corps with senior Dazz Newsome, sophomore Emery Simmons, junior Antoine Green, senior Toe Groves and Dyami Brown’s younger brother, freshman Khafre Brown.
Newsome, who caught 48 passes for 616 yards and five touchdowns, including a 75-yard play, figures to be the guy who becomes UNC’s most dependable big-play threat.
“If he wants to take the team on his back and catch the ball for 200 yards and three touchdowns, be my guest,” Longo said. “We could use as good a game out of Dazz as we could get, and that really holds true for all our guys. Go out and do their job and give us your best effort, and if they’re looking to overlap some of the production that we have lost, fantastic.”
Newsome wasn’t tempted to follow the lead of the other four players who opted out.
“I’m a ballplayer, so I want to play,” said Newsome, who has taken note of the comments from some who don’t give UNC a chance against Texas A&M because of the four stars opting out. “Most definitely. We see all the things people are saying. We see all the comments people are saying. It’s definitely making everybody play with a chip on their shoulder.”
Dyami’s Brown’s absence will give more chances to the other receivers, including Simmons, who caught 15 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown. He said that he’s built more confidence in the last couple of games.
“I feel like that confidence has been there all along,” Simmons said. “It was just a matter of getting the opportunity to go out there and show it. So, I feel like with that happening, it was just next-man-up mentality and go out there playing the game you love, just going out there having fun doing it.”
On Saturday, we’ll see how well the Tar Heels’ offensive redistribution plan works.
Pool photos by Robert Willett (top) and Michael Laughlin