College Football: UNc needs to find wide receivers
CHAPEL HILL ó Butch Davis never had to worry about throwing downfield during his first two years at North Carolina. Not with receivers such as Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster pulling the ball in for big gains.
This season, that proven receiving talent is gone.
The Tar Heels’ top returning receiver is a running back. The most experienced wideout has 24 career catches while bouncing between positions. The other receivers on the preseason depth chart have combined to appear in four games and have never caught a college pass.
“They’re going to get an awful lot of opportunities in a variety of ways ó through scrimmages, through 7-on-7s, 2-minute drills,” Davis said Friday during the team’s preseason media day. “And we can’t go faster than they can grow with us. We’re going to need them.”
That lack of experience is probably the most glaring weakness for the Tar Heels, who are trying to build off their third bowl appearance in the past decade.
T.J. Yates is back for a third season as the starting quarterback, while the running game looks set with Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston providing a 1-2 punch in the backfield.
But the Tar Heels don’t have anyone quite like Nicks, Tate and Foster. Nicks was a first-round NFL draft pick with 1,222 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns; Tate was a third-round pick despite going down at midseason with a knee injury; and Foster was a fifth-rounder.
That leaves Draughn as the leading returning receiver with 16 catches for 81 yards and a score.
Yates’ most experienced wideout will be Greg Little, who has split time between running back and receiver in his first two years. He’s had 24 catches for 245 yards and a touchdown for his career. Now he’s the veteran leader by default.
“We have some big shoes to fill,” Little said. “Just seeing some chatter where we’re ranked 11th out of 12 in receivers (in the Atlantic Coast Conference), that means we had a lot of production last year. It’s a challenge. I like challenges, and I like to see what happens.”
It remains to be seen just how ready any of the other receivers will be to follow him.
The other penciled-in starter is Dwight Jones, a two-sport prep star from nearby Burlington who appeared in three games last year. The backups include Joshua Adams, a freshman who enrolled in January; redshirt freshman Todd Harrelson and sophomore Rashad Mason ó who appeared in one game last year.
That figures to put more burden on the running backs and tight ends to help Yates, though H-back Ryan Taylor considers it an opportunity. Taylor shares an off-campus house with Yates in nearby Carrboro, where the two have gone to the backyard to throw the ball and work on routes.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Taylor said. “I think it’s a relief. All the tight ends, we’ve had such a great receiving corps that there’s really been ó I don’t want to say there was no reason to, but how can you not throw the ball to those three guys? So now it’s kind of like an opportunity to let us do what we were brought in to do, and that’s to catch the ball.”