Next North Carolina QB has giant shoes to fill

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 25: North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora during a timeout of the NCAA football game between the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the North Carolina Tar Heels on November 25, 2016, at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire)
Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire

When Larry Fedora accepted the North Carolina job in December 2011, he made a few promises.

In bringing the “Fed-Spread” offense to Chapel Hill, the former Southern Mississippi coach proclaimed there would be a faster pace and more scoring.

So far, Fedora has delivered on those promises. In his five years at North Carolina, the Tar Heels have averaged 71.4 plays per game, compared to 63.5 over the five years before he arrived. North Carolina is also averaging 35.9 points per matchup under Fedora — more than a 10-point jump from the 25.3 PPG average in the five prior seasons.

Throughout the last half-decade at North Carolina, Fedora has lucked out on quarterbacks. While the scheme has opened the door for big passing numbers, the last seven years have marked the greatest run the school has ever had at the most important position on the field.

Now, for the first time in the Fedora era, there are major question marks as to whether or not that will continue.

Three scholarship quarterbacks battled for the starting job throughout the spring in what remains an unsettled competition. In addition, that trio of sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd will be joined by LSU transfer Brandon Harris this summer. The race will continue, possibly until the team’s Sept. 2 opener against California.

At face value, the current crop looks much more like a group the Tar Heels worked with 10 or more years ago than what they’ve had lately.

It might be hard to believe for someone who just started following UNC football in recent years, but before 2010, the program had never produced a 3,000-yard passer. T.J. Yates ended the drought in 2010 with 3,418 yards, and a year later, he became the first North Carolina quarterback product to take an NFL snap.

Even without Yates, the Tar Heels’ quarterback excellence continued. As the successor, Bryn Renner made his own mark, setting records for touchdowns in a season (28) and career completion percentage (66.5%); both of those stood until Mitchell Trubisky rewrote the record books last fall.

When a shoulder injury ended Renner’s college career midway through the 2013 season, Marquise Williams stepped in and never relinquished the starting job for the rest of his time at UNC. Williams only went on to set the program’s career record for total offense with 10,423 yards. In maintaining his status as a first-teamer, he even fought off Trubisky, who is in the running to become the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL Draft after thriving in his one season as the starter.

So who’s next?

North Carolina’s returning group of signal-callers can be defined by one word: inexperience. Elliott is the only one in the group to have played a college snap; he completed 8-of-9 passes last fall for 55 yards.

That makes it difficult to envision any of those quarterbacks blowing up in 2017. Trubisky, Williams and Renner were all heralded prospects on the recruiting trail, while Yates was inconsistent until finally breaking out as a redshirt senior and fourth-year starter.

Surratt and Byrd were also heavily recruited, but that doesn’t mean either is ready to take the reins after just one year of holding the clipboard. Even Trubisky struggled as a redshirt freshman despite the coaching staff giving him every chance to beat out Williams as the starter.

That leaves Harris, who enters his final year of collegiate eligibility. The Bossier City, La., native didn’t transfer to UNC to watch from the sideline, and the starting job is his to lose. The question is whether or not he can produce the same eye-popping numbers as the passers who came before him.

Harris logged 15 starts at LSU while running Les Miles’ pro-style offense. He went 10-5 in those games, and during his three seasons of action in Baton Rouge, he threw for 2,756 yards and 20 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.

The 6-3, 218-pounder possesses solid running ability (370 yards and seven rushing touchdowns at LSU), which is a plus in UNC’s offense. However, there’s one significant concern: His biggest area of weakness is his accuracy, which is the most important quality a Fedora-coached quarterback needs.

Harris completed just 53.9 of his 347 attempts at LSU. For comparison, Williams posted the lowest single-season completion percentage of a Tar Heel starting quarterback under Fedora in 2013 at 58.1. Williams, though, was a much better runner.

Perhaps Fedora’s offense is a better fit for Harris than the pro-style attack at LSU. For now, though, that’s an unknown.

What we do know is that Fedora has had three different starting quarterbacks during his five years in Chapel Hill, and all three posted a 3,000-yard season and an eight-win campaign.

The pressure is on for whoever’s next.

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