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In the three days since North Carolina's 17-27 loss to Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels have been able to evaluate their offensive performance from a different perspective than they have after any other game this season because of two key contributors.
The start of Marquise Williams at quarterback over veteran Bryn Renner allowed the offense to manage its playbook from a less pocket-oriented perspective, while the debut of running back T.J. Logan brought yet another piece of the puzzle to the on-going conversation surrounding the use of backs by-committee.
Renner is Recovering
Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson believes that Williams gave North Carolina "a chance to win," in an impressive first-start manner, but Renner is still the number one quarterback heading into the October 17 Zero Dark Thirty.
"I thought (Williams) used his feet well and made good reads for the most part, TJ is a speed guy and has great vision so he was able to create some holes that weren't really there, he made a couple of guys miss," Anderson said of the players in new roles. "They just bring a different phase of the game in play than when you're dealing with a pocket passer."
Williams, who lead North Carolina in yards netted on the ground, rushed for 56 yards Saturday. Those 56 rushing yards are the third most registered by any UNC player this season - behind A.J. Blue's 68 against ECU and Romar Morris' 69 at South Carolina. Logan was second in team rushing yards Saturday with 25, but Anderson believes that the two players making their debut were able to lead the team differently because of the variety they added to the Tar Heel offense that has played in previous games this season.
But Williams isn't expected to see a repeat start as of Tuesday. Renner, who missed the start because he "ran out of time, basically," to fully recover after injury from being sacked by East Carolina, was near-ready then and expects to be fully ready in nine days, especially after two full day's rest Sunday and Monday.
"I just couldn't be 100 percent for the team and I think did everything I could to try and play (Saturday) and I'm looking forward to this week and playing against Miami," Renner said. "I think (the off week)'s a huge advantage for me, just being able to get in the training room and keep rehabbing it. It feels a ton better today and I'm running with the one's again so it was good to get back out there."
Renner's inability to start against Virginia Tech, he said, came because he couldn't play full power. His capability to make a cut on the inside of his left foot, he said, was at less-than-best because of the injury that had him in a walking boot the entire week after UNC's loss to ECU.
"I thought I could run straight ahead, but just the cutting movement and football play…I just wasn't ready yet," he said.
The injured foot is the same foot the fifth-year senior had surgery on two years ago, but even with the restricted movement, Renner's recovery is coming back from a close-to ready to play place, he said.
One of the thing the leader said he saw Saturday from the sidelines that he liked was North Carolina's running game. He believed that Williams contributed in between plays and on the ground in a positive way that helped allow UNC to make eight explosive plays during the game, meeting the team's eight-or-more explosive plays per game goal.
Williams was comfortable with his first start, saying that he felt he did an average start but wished he could have back his interception.
Although he knows, "this is Bryn's team," he felt that his opportunity to command it on Saturday taught him one prevalent lesson about quarterbacking an entire game at the college level.
"As a quarterback, you can't float the ball down the middle of the field," he said. "You have to put a tight two-ball on it, try and tighten it up and that's (what) coach always teaches, that you've got to tighten the ball up. So you can't float the ball down against these types of guys because guys are faster in college and that's what I've been working on."
Power-runners are progressing
For Logan, who carried the ball five times for 25 yards to supplement team-leading Williams, Saturday was a starting mark for how the freshman can contribute to the numbers that Blue, Morris and freshman Khris Francis accumulate on the ground.
While Williams and Logan worked effectively as a pair, Anderson believes Logan's natural on-field flow showed the running backs character and his ability to work well with the entirety of UNC's offense, not just the first quarterback he got to play in-game with.
"I think (Williams and Logan) do well together, I really feel like (Logan)'s good with whoever's in there, it just so happened he was working with 'Quise on Saturday, but I think he feels comfortable out on the field regardless," Anderson said. "But I think they all get along really well. (Logan) fits in with the team, from day one he was a likeable guy, he's just got that attitude and personality where everybody falls in love with the guy."
Running backs coachRandy Jordan attributes Logan's ability to create holes to his natural running ability. Logan has a feel for when to cut back and when to plant and get the ball outside, Jordan said, in a way that makes the freshman easy to coach.
"You really don't do a whole lot of coaching," he said. "You coach technique in terms of foot work, tracks, and then what your reads are. But I tell him, 'Get you to the line of scrimmage, the rest is up to you. I can't make you a runner.' Some guys have it and some guys don't, but TJ definitely has it. I think he's going to continue to get better and he's so young and he wants to be good."
In post-game evaluations, Logan said that the area he most wants to work on is his ability to pass block. It's a skill the fast freshman has begun honing since coming to college. Anderson notes that the skill is always difficult for freshman backs who haven't been asked to contribute to an offense that way before, but sees toughness and enthusiasm from Logan that he believes will allow the late-learned skill to develop to the high level of running ability that Logan has already.
"For freshmen, it's happening pretty fast, there's things that he's probably not been asked to do at the high school level and some of the exotic things he's going to see defensively," Anderson said of Logan. "To me that's always been the last thing that they get solid with but he's done a good job with it. He had a couple tweaks with it on Saturday where he wasn't quite in the right spot but he's not afraid to step up and hit a guy which gives you a chance for success in the first place, he's willing to be physical, now it's just position and the different things that he's going to see."
Logan's comrades on the running back squad - Blue, Francis and Morris - combined for a total of 22 yards Saturday. While those yards are significantly fewer than what each back has contributed to UNC's other games this season, Anderson attributed the change to the ever-plaguing injuries that the group has.
"Nobody's been healthy at the same time, it's always been that somebody's been down," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the situations we play in - who's fresh, who's got a hot hand - coach Jordan's trying to do his best to manage the group, keep the guys on the field that are fresh and available."
One of the constant factors in assessing North Carolina's running game is keeping track of how the backs - particularly those who have missed full games due to injury this season - are contributing in reps with different groups in practice.
With Morris, who consistently takes reps with the one's and holds position on the depth chart as a starting, having missed the East Carolina game because of injury, Blue having worked through minor injury during training camp and the preseason and Logan having missed the first four games of the season while recovering from injury, North Carolina's squad of running backs has its work cut out for it even in trying to have a fully fresh body to field.
Anderson continues to look for one guy to emerge from the running back group, recognizing that the wait may drag into the end of this season or extend into the spring, but said that until that emergence happens, the strategy will be shaped around keeping the freshest bodies in playmaking positions.