By Turner Walston
It's a year of new beginnings for Carolina football, particularly on the offensive side. Come September, when the Tar Heels take the field against Cal, a new quarterback will lead a huddle comprised of a mostly-new offensive line, with new tailbacks and new receivers. The Tar Heels will have to find new playmakers, and there are many young players eager to step into those roles.
When Mitch Trubisky began his first and only year as Carolina's starting quarterback, he had the comfort of a veteran offensive line and many veteran playmakers alongside. But Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard will graduate in May, and the Tar Heels will look to make their new quarterback –whoever he is– comfortable throwing the ball to a young group of wideouts.
Carolina returns a shade less than 30 percent of its receiving yards from a year ago: 1,123 of 3,811 yards; and about that many catches: 89 of 313. Austin Proehl was the Tar Heels third-leading receiver last year, with 43 catches for 597 yards, and his role will be magnified moving forward. Already a leader in the wide receivers room, Proehl is now the senior leader alongside former walk-on Thomas Jackson.
To look around that receivers room under position coach Gunter Brewer is to see a group that exemplifies the aims of both Larry Fedora's offense and his recruiting strategy: you can never have too many playmakers– there are 13 wideouts listed on the spring roster; and you have to recruit your home state and region– eight of them are from North Carolina, two from Tennessee, and one each from South Carolina, Florida and Texas.
"It's cool, being able to come in that room and come to the next level with a bunch of guys that you've played with, grown up around and read about since I was a freshman in high school," Proehl said after Saturday's Spring Game. "It's definitely a cool opportunity, a cool experience."
The Tar Heel coaches and fans got a glimpse of the players stepping into that opportunity on Saturday. While Proehl led all receivers with 109 yards, Juval Mollette had seven catches for 100 yards and three scores. Mollette had two shoulder surgeries and is participating in his first spring, getting back his strength and conditioning and looking to contribute.
"That's my little big guy," Proehl said of the 6'4 sophomore. "I've taken a lot of pride in Juval, just because when he came in he was always the guy, he was a big recruit and I think he learned quickly that he had a lot to learn, but you can finally see him, as you saw today, picking it up good. He looked great today. His routes are getting better. He's starting to listen more, be coachable more, and as you can see, it's paying off. I give him a lot of credit. He's trying to earn a job."
Also standing out Saturday was Roscoe Johnson, who had three catches for 88 yards and a touchdown, including a 43-yard connection from Nathan Elliott, in which he broke several tackles, and a 30-yard score.
Carolina will rely on Proehl and Jackson as well as tight ends like Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker to be leaders among the Tar Heel pass-catchers, while also searching for new playmakers to step forward and help develop a sense of comfort with the new quarterback.
"They've all flashed throughout the spring, and that's what we're looking for," Fedora said of his young wideouts. "We're trying to find some consistency. If you're going to do it today, I want you to do it tomorrow and the next day also. We can get that consistency. We have some talent, we've just got to get that consistency out of those guys."
So while the Tar Heels bid farewell to some of the best playmakers in recent school history, they now look to the future, one without Switzer, Hollins, Howard.
"We all realizes that this is Division I football; this is what happens," Proehl said. "Guys come, guys go, and you've got to step up and replace the void, so that's what we're doing. That's what we're working on throughout the summer, but this spring ball was good for us. It was good for a lot of guys. I think people realize where they are, what they need to work on, and hopefully come fall, when we see you guys again, we'll be a different team."