DJ Jones said doubt had arisen about the effectiveness of North Carolina running backs by the time Javonte Williams and Michael Carter checked.
Both Williams and Carter rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2020 before going to the NFL without a proven replacement on the depth chart.
Transfer graduate Ty Chandler provided a stopgap to his only season with the Tar Heels last year, leading the team with 1,092 rushing yards. But as he currently embarks on a professional career, Carolina once again finds himself with a collection of inexperienced running backs.
Jones said it led to a collective chip on their shoulders to prove they had what it takes.
“I felt like that chip had been in the room since ‘Vonte and Mike left,” said Jones, a junior from Fayetteville. “When they left nobody thought we would have a running back and Ty came in and we had a good year last year. I think it’s the same now with Ty leaving. We’re trying just to prove ourselves as a room, not just as individuals in a race room, but as a whole room that we’re going to impact the team, impact the game as a unit .
UNC coach Mack Brown has mostly only used two fullbacks in the rotation since returning to Chapel Hill. But this year, he said he would like to use three.
“We said one of the key things for coach (Larry) Porter as running back is to separate his guys,” Brown said. “Who are the guys who can make plays with the ball in space? Who are the guys who can break tackles and go (yards after contact) inside? So it’s a good situation to have, but a situation we need to work on.
Of the six players vying for the rotation, only British Brooks has recorded a 100-yard game. Brooks, a former extra who will always be on special teams, was the Heels’ leading running back in each of their last three games last season.
His performance was highlighted by a career-high 124 yards against NC State. He snatched a 63-yard touchdown against South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Brooks was the team’s third-leading rusher with 295 yards. Although he’ll enter the season opener against Florida A&M on Aug. 27 as the starting running back, the fifth-year senior still has the mentality he had as an extra who was just fighting for win a scholarship.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” Brooks said. “The season hasn’t started yet so I have a lot to prove. That’s how I proceeded. »
They all have their reasons.
For freshmen George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton, it proves their talent can overcome their lack of experience. Pettaway had the advantage of signing up in January and it helped his progress at the start of fall camp.
For Jones and second Caleb Hood, it’s all about finding a way to stay healthy throughout the season. Jones was on the No. 2 running backs list last season before a foot injury knocked him out of the lineup. And even when he was in the lineout, he said he spent too much time thinking about getting injured again that it made him hesitate with the ball.
“I was guessing everything, guessing my moves, and it threw me off a lot,” Jones said. “And I think that showed up a lot and that’s another reason why I played and played.”
Jones said that’s all a thing of the past now, as he feels better than he has since joining UNC.
Sophomore Elijah Green has developed a similar confidence. He’s here to prove he’s done the adjustment after leading an I formation in high school where he never caught passes in space or learned pass protection patterns.
One of his biggest moments in the spring came when he helped extend a play by catching a blitz with his block. Green also said he caught 100 passes after training the JUGs machine or a quarterback to help improve his hands.
The competition will do it to you.
“The fact that we have so many good guys in the running room, we’re getting better every day,” Green said. “You see a guy break a run, you’re like, ‘Man, I gotta do this. Or it’s going to push me to go harder and push me to get better. So, honestly, it’s really good that we have this competition and so many guys who can carry the ball. It’s what you want in a backyard race room.