D.J. Jones said the doubt kicked in about the effectiveness of North Carolina’s running backs the moment Javonte Williams and Michael Carter checked out.
Both Williams and Carter rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2020 before going to the NFL without a proven replacement on the depth chart.
Graduate transfer Ty Chandler provided a stopgap in his single season with the Tar Heels last year, leading the team with 1,092 rushing yards. But as he currently embarks on a pro career, Carolina is again left with a collection of inexperienced running backs.
Jones said it’s led to a collective chip on their shoulders to prove they have what it takes.
“I felt like that chip has been in the room since ‘Vonte and Mike left,” said Jones, a junior from Fayetteville. “When they left, nobody thought we would have a running back and Ty came in and we had a good year last year. I think that’s the same thing now with Ty leaving. We’re just trying to prove ourselves as a room, not just as individuals in a running back room but as a full room that we’re gonna impact the team, impact the game as a unit.”
UNC coach Mack Brown has primarily just used two backs in the rotation since his return to Chapel Hill. But this year, he said he’d like to use three.
“We’ve said one of the key things for coach (Larry) Porter at running back is separating his guys,” Brown said. “Who are the guys that can make plays with the ball in space? Who are the guys that can break tackles and get (yards after contact) inside? So it’s a good situation to have, but one that we’ve got to work through.”
Of the six players vying for the rotation, only British Brooks has logged a 100-yard game. Brooks, a former walk-on who will still have a presence on special teams, was the Heels’ leading rusher in each of their last three games last season.
His performance was highlighted by a career-high 124 yards against N.C. State. He ripped off a 63-yard touchdown against South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Brooks was the third leading rusher on the team with 295 yards. Although he’ll enter the season opener against Florida A&M on Aug. 27 as the starting running back, the fifth-year senior still has the mentality he had as a walk-on just fighting to earn a scholarship.
“I haven’t haven’t done anything yet,” Brooks said. “The season hasn’t started yet so I got a lot to prove. That’s how I’ve been going about it.”
They’ve all got their reasons.
For freshmen George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton, it’s proving their talent can overcome their lack of experience. Pettaway had the advantage of enrolling in January and it’s helped his progression as fall camp started.
For Jones and sophomore Caleb Hood, it’s finding a way to stay healthy throughout the season. Jones was listed as the No. 2 running back last season before a foot injury took him out of the lineup. And even when he was in the lineup, he said he spent too much time thinking about getting injured again that it made him hesitant with the ball.
“I was second guessing everything, second guessing my moves, and that made me feel off balance a lot,” Jones said. “And I think that showed up a lot and that’s one another reason why I was in and out playing.”
Jones said that’s all in the past now as he feels better than he has since arriving at UNC.
Sophomore Elijah Green has developed similar confidence. He’s out to prove that he’s completed the adjustment from running an I-formation in high school where he never caught passes in space or learned pass protection schemes.
One of his biggest moments in the spring came when he helped extend a play by picking up a blitz with his blocking. Green also said he’s caught 100 passes after practice from either the JUGs machine or a quarterback to help him improve his hands.
The competition will do that to you.
“The fact that we have so many good guys in the running back room, we get each other better every single day,” Green said. “You see a guy break a run, you’re like, ‘Man, I gotta do that.’ Or it’s gonna push me to go harder and push me to get better. So, honestly, it’s really good that we have that competition and so many guys that can carry the ball. That’s what you want in a running back room.”
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