UNC receivers on a roll
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL ó T.J. Yates doesn’t have to guess whether his young receivers are doing their homework as they try to grasp North Carolina’s offense.
The proof is tacked up on a door inside the Kenan Football Center.
“We’ve got sign-up sheets to see who’s watching film,” the quarterback said. “Last week we had to add three extra sheets to the door because there were so many people watching film in the wide receivers’ meeting room. That’s definitely an encouraging thing to see.”
It hasn’t taken long for the results to show on the field, either. Two strong performances from Erik Highsmith and a long touchdown catch from Jheranie Boyd have allowed the No. 22 Tar Heels to turn their most glaring weakness of the preseason into reason for optimism heading into this weekend’s trip to Georgia Tech.
“They’re still a work in progress,” UNC coach Butch Davis said. “They’re starting to scratch the surface, but it’s going to be every single week (that) they’ve got to continue to grow.”
Highsmith, who had eight catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in West Craven’s 35-7 loss to West Rowan in the 3A title game ninth months ago, has been the quickest study.
The freshman came through with several key catches in the comeback win at Connecticut, then followed with six catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in last weekend’s win against East Carolina.
Boyd, a freshman from Gastonia, contributed with a juggling 59-yard TD catch in that game, and junior Greg Little has 15 catches for 135 yards in the first three games. Those numbers aren’t anything like what the Tar Heels (3-0) had last year in Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster, but they’re a good start.
“I think they’re just starting to mature and get more comfortable,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “You notice Highsmith and the way he’s come on. I think (Yates) was more comfortable back there (against ECU). I know they have a lot of talent. They’re developing real nicely.”
The Tar Heels knew they would have to find someone to fill the shoes of their departed NFL trio. It left tailback Shaun Draughn as the leading returning receiver with 16 catches for 81 yards and a score, while Little had 24 career catches while splitting time between running back and receiver.
Three games later, Highsmith is running with the confidence befitting a go-to veteran.
He made his biggest plays against the Pirates in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game. First, he took a quick out from Yates and sprinted 43 yards for first down. Two plays later, Yates rolled to his left and found Highsmith again for a 10-yard gain and another first down that ultimately led to the game-clinching touchdown.
“It’s a big transition from high school football,” Highsmith said. “Just learning the plays takes a toll on you because they threw so much at us during the summer and training camp. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got most of it down.
“I’m a fast learner. It just clicked for me.”
Just don’t expect the Tar Heel coaches to overly patient. When asked how understanding he’ll be when players make youthful mistakes, receivers coach Charlie Williams put it bluntly: “We’re understanding to the fact that two drops in the same game means it’s time for somebody else to be in there.”
The Tar Heels have several other options, including freshman Joshua Adams and converted running back Johnny White, a junior. North Carolina also figures to get a boost this weekend with the expected return of Dwight Jones, a talented sophomore who was expected to start opposite Little for the opener before being sidelined following surgery on his right knee.
Whether Highsmith stays in a leading role or another youngster steps up, the Tar Heels are hoping the result is the same: namely steady, consistent production.
“Nobody wants a flash in the pan,” Davis said. “Nobody wants a guy to be good one week or mediocre the next. … If you’re always focused on working on the fundamentals and doing the little things right, then the big things come a lot easier.”