football Edit

UNC Offense In Flux After Losing Carter, Williams

With UNC's two All-ACC running backs gone, UNC has devised a new plan for Josh Henderson (pictured) and company.
With UNC's two All-ACC running backs gone, UNC has devised a new plan for Josh Henderson (pictured) and company. (Jacob Turner, THI)

CHAPEL HILL – As challenging as losing Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Chazz Surratt for the Orange Bowl is for North Carolina, none of that measures up to the concern expressed by Mack Brown after learning Javonte Williams also wasn’t going to play versus Texas A&M.

Albeit less experienced and accomplished, the Tar Heels are confident in replacing Surratt and Brown, but the running back room might be a different story. With freshman D.J. Jones also out with an injury, just three running backs remain: Josh Henderson, British Brooks and Elijah Green.

The uncertainty of what the trio can provide forced a disruption in Carolina’s practice plans in preparing for Saturday’s game. The staff learned about Williams’ decision 10 minutes before their pre-practice meeting last Saturday. Sunday was a scheduled day off, but Monday was also a day off for the players, as the staff scrambled to re-design their game plan.

Kids drawing up plays in the dirt in someone’s back yard? Not exactly, but it’s certainly not something Mack Brown appeared thrilled about when he met with the media Monday morning.

Javonte Williams set a UNC single-season record with 22 touchdowns this season.
Javonte Williams set a UNC single-season record with 22 touchdowns this season. (ACC Media)

Carolina’s offense is what it is but losing both All-ACC backs has thrown a wrench into the Tar Heels’ plans.

“We’re in a position right now where we're actually re-discussing (the game plan) because we, with Javonte, we've got a lot of receivers that have played, it wasn't going to be that different because Javonte is a great player, he's one of the best in the country,” Brown said Monday about Williams, who even took part last week in a taped virtual Orange Bowl Luncheon event that aired Wednesday.

“So, he would have just gotten more reps, he would have gotten more touches and we thought he was excited about that. But now, we've got to look at what is best. So, actually yesterday, we spent all day and today we'll spend all day. One of the reasons we're not practicing today, trying to figure out what we're going to do differently since Javonte is not playing.”

In place of Carter and Williams are a trio of inexperienced backs.

Henderson, who has played 43 career snaps at running back, has run the ball 30 times for 173 yards (5.8 average) with a long of 35 yards. He has two receptions for eight yards. Brooks, 27 career snaps at running back, has run it 19 times for 113 yards (5.9 average) and a touchdown with a long of 27 yards. Green, 14 snaps, has carried it 10 times for 55 yards with a long of 15.

Brooks has played 27 snaps at running back for UNC and has one touchdown.
Brooks has played 27 snaps at running back for UNC and has one touchdown. (Jacob Turner/THI)

Green has not played on special teams, but Brooks (460 plays) and Henderson (300) at least have considerable experience with the speed and physicality of the game. But they didn’t factor much into last week’s planning. Williams was going to get around 30 touches. His departure left offensive coordinator Phil Longo scrambling.

“You have to go make your adjustments, so we've got to take 30 reps and we've got to distribute them and spread them out to the other weapons that we do have,” Longo said Tuesday. “So, game plan adjusting going on over the weekend and we just kind of put that to the test (this week) in practice.”

Henderson arrived at UNC with high expectations. He was a 4-star back out of the Hun School in Princeton, NJ, choosing UNC over Baylor, West Virginia, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Central Florida, and Boston College among others. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie was his main recruiter and the staffer with whom he developed the strongest relationship even though that was with the previous staff. But Gillespie was retained by Brown and Henderson remained a priority for the new staff.

“I really trust him, and I know we can do something special,” Henderson told THI at the time, referring to Gillespie.

Brooks signed with UNC as a preferred walk-on in 2018 after a stellar career at Ashbrook High School in Gastonia, NC. He ran for 1,411 yards and 17 scores as a junior and 1,423 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior.

Green has played just 14 snaps this season.
Green has played just 14 snaps this season. (ACC Media)

While then-UNC Coach Larry Fedora said at the ACC Kickoff in July of 2018 that Brooks would be on scholarship, that hasn’t yet materialized. Fedora spoke highly of Brooks at the time.

“He’s a kid that’s come in and been with us for about a month now this summer,” Fedora said that July. “He’s shown some good things. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s got to learn the offense and understand our offense… I’m looking forward to seeing what he does.”

A true freshman, Green was a 3-star prospect from Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, GA, where he won three consecutive state championships, running for 208 yards and two touchdowns on 21 attempts in his final game. Green chose UNC over offers from Michigan State, South Carolina, Iowa State, Missouri, and NC State, among others.

“I liked the way running backs coach Gillespie coached and taught his players,” Green told THI in 2019. “He offered some very good advice to me about the recruiting process and he was very honest about his philosophy as a coach and was a genuine person.

“He said that he really liked my size and feet quickness. As well as what I have accomplished outside of football such as my 4.0 GPA.”

Now, all three will get their chances to have an impact. “Opportunity” is a powerful word when embraced, and a few unknown Heels have an opportunity standing at their feet.

Howell is excited about seeing some other backs get an opportunity.
Howell is excited about seeing some other backs get an opportunity. (ACC Media)

“I'm definitely excited for these younger guys to have a chance to really show what they’ve got because we really haven't seen them playing snaps that really mean anything this year,” UNC quarterback Sam Howell said. “So, it's definitely a great opportunity for those guys and it shows what we're going to be like next year with these guys leaving.

“So, it's a great opportunity for those guys to get some good quality reps and see if they can make some plays for us.”

Green played in a more run-oriented attack in high school, so he’s still learning the nuances of UNCs offense and how to excel in pass protection. Brooks and Henderson, however, have gotten plenty of meaningful reps in practice and appear further ahead than Green.

“Most of the time, British and Josh Henderson have been taking the reps, the physical reps, on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Brown said. “So, they've practiced all year, so they know what to do. They're very physical and they'll carry most of the load on Saturday night.”

No Carter, no Williams and a tweaked plan. Such are things for North Carolina as it prepares to play one of the top teams in the nation.