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September 6, 2013
North Carolina heads into its home opener Saturday looking for a second receiver to emerge alongside Quinshad Davis as a consistent threat that can make similar types of plays while taking pressure off the big sophomore and others like junior tight end Eric Ebron.
Davis and Ebron combined for seven receptions for 71 yards against South Carolina in UNC's 27-10 setback to the Gamecocks. They were two of ten different Tar Heels to make receptions in that game.
The Davis/Ebron tandem combined for over a fourth of UNC's 26 total receptions and over a third of its total passing yardage.
UNC's other most productive receiver in the opening loss in Columbia was true freshman Johnathan Howard, making his first Tar Heel appearance.
The rookie, nicknamed 'Bug,' only had two catches against the Gamecocks but they were both big grabs, covering 18 yards and 14 yards respectively. His 32 yards tied with Ebron for second-most on the team.
"You had Bug Howard come into the game and make some nice plays for us," said head coach Larry Fedora in Monday's press conference.
Fedora also spoke at length about the lanky Georgia native during this week's Radio Show, describing his hopes that Howard can emerge as that second big threat outside the hashes that the Tar Heels will need this season and in coming seasons.
"Bug's going to be a player. There's no doubt about it. He really had an impressive camp and he's just feeling his way along," the second-year UNC coach replied. "It will be very nice to have two big tall lanky guys on both sides of the field that can perform. I can see him (Howard) exploding like Quinshad did as this year goes on."
Wisely, Howard has been looking to learn and grow from Davis, observing his practice habits and trying to pick up some of the things he does that help him be successful.
"I just get with Quinshad, just finding out some of the things he does," Howard told Tar Heel Illustrated's Marilyn Payne this week. "I just get with him, and he takes me through some of the steps of what to do and what not to do to take away the old high school ways and bring it into the college ways. It's pretty cool."
Howard was one of the most productive players in the Peach State last fall at his position at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle (Ga.), recording over 1,600 receiving yards and 100 catches. His receiving yardage was the fifth-highest single-season receiving yardage total in the annals of Georgia high school football.
"He (Howard) is probably 6-5---maybe a little bit taller than that," said Fedora of the newcomer receiver. "He's actually 195 pounds. He just doesn't look like it because he's all muscle and bone. He's tall, lean and has a lot length to him."
But even after all that production in high school---and proving during training camp and the season opener against one of America's best college defenses in South Carolina that he's ready to compete right away---Howard isn't satisfied at all.
He's looking to refine his route running as well as using his body for more than getting space from a cornerback and making catches.
Through Davis, position coach Gunter Brewer, and his own repetitions in practice, Howard is learning how to be a college receiver. He's learning that he has to protect himself more, and that one false step can ruin his chances of making a play.
"(I'm focusing on) where I'm placing my routes and stuff, being more physical and using my body for a shield more, and just little things like that," Howard said. "Right now I'm still learning, so I'm still behind some more experienced guys."
Though veterans like Sean Tapley and T.J. Thorpe have the experience advantage over Howard at this point in time, both of them have to be more consistent to aid Davis and the rolling coverages that are likely to come his way this week against Middle Tennessee and throughout the season.
Tapley and Thorpe had six catches against South Carolina. Thorpe with four of those to tie Davis for the team lead. But combined, they only had 10 receiving yards. Several of these attempts were quick passes near the line of scrimmage that didn't have time to develop against the aggressive Gamecock defense.
The door is clearly there for Howard to step up and emerge as UNC's primary No. 2 receiver. And even some weeks if Davis is getting heavily covered, he could potentially step up as Bryn Renner's top option through the air.
Howard is likely to have multiple balls coming his way over the course of Saturday afternoon against the Blue Raiders, and he's eager for the workload.
"I feel pretty good that I might get a little bit more playing time coming in this Saturday. It just all depends. It's no big deal. I just want to win," Howard said.
UNC needs something out of Howard now of course to improve the team's chances of offensive success this fall, but his potential is through the roof.
Given his age, his vast room for physical development, as well as his playmaking ability, Howard is one of those guys who could have a very bright future.
"(Davis weighed) 188 pounds or something like that (when he got to UNC last year) and he's 210 pounds now in one year," said Fedora. "I guarantee you Bug will probably be 215 (pounds) next year at this time (in 2014). He won't have that little bird's chest like he's got now."
It's an exciting prospect indeed for Tar Heel fans, but there's no better time than Saturday for Howard to step up and prove he's ready to step beside Davis and become UNC's next stud wide receiver.