CHAPEL HILL Stories are circulating, and have been for a while now, about how Elijah Hood recently squatted more than 600 pounds, and about how fast he has learned North Carolina coach Larry Fedoras offense faster than any freshman he has ever coached, Fedora said not long ago.
Slowly, through those stories, a sort of legend has started to form and take shape and all before Hood, a running back and Charlotte native who is the most heralded member of the Tar Heels incoming freshman class, has played his first college game.
It was like this, in some ways, before social media and non-stop recruiting coverage. Now, with the assistance of those things, expectations for young players have become magnified. Maybe it says something that Fedoras expectations for Hood havent waned two weeks into preseason camp.
I still feel that way, Fedora said earlier this week, referencing the praise hed heaped on Hood before practice started. Hes really doing some nice things. Hes got such great football savvy, and then hes also very intelligent on top of it.
Hood once committed to Notre Dame and then rescinded. Alabama sent him recruiting letters a pile of them and he flushed them down the toilet. A video of Hood doing so has more than 50,000 views on YouTube.
That he wound up at UNC was a victory in itself proof that Fedora and his staff could beat some of the best, most tradition-rich programs in the nation and recruit to Chapel Hill a player that everyone in the country wanted. And now comes the difficult part: turning Hoods promise into something more tangible, and doing it without crushing him under the burden of expectation.
Hood, who became one of the most sought prospects in the nation during his days at Charlotte Catholic High, still is more than two weeks from his college debut. How he fits into the Tar Heels offense, and where he stands in the running back rotation those remain questions without answers.
The good thing is, they dictate who plays, Larry Porter, UNCs running backs coach, said earlier this week. I dont.
It might have been a typical thing for a coach to say that the players decide their playing time. In the 6-foot, 220-pound Hood, though, Porter has encountered the atypical a blend of size, speed and strength that doesnt come around often.
Hood, Porter said, has to this point been about what we expected. Hood enrolled early, in January, and spent some of his first months on campus familiarizing himself with Fedoras playbook. That enabled him to gain an understanding of the offense and particularly about his role when the ball isnt in his hands.
Hes a guy that has been all-in from the standpoint of every single thing that weve asked him to do to position himself to be mentally and physically ready to play this season, he has done, Porter said. For a guy his age to be where he is in the run game, the passing game and the protection game were really pleased with it.
First-year players at UNC arent allowed to speak with the media until they play in their first game, and so what Hood thinks of his development remains unclear, at least publicly. His coaches arent the only ones who have been impressed, though.
T.J. Logan, the sophomore running back who will likely start the season atop the depth chart, recently raved about Hoods blocking ability. Landon Turner, a junior offensive lineman, gushed about Hoods physicality.
Turners description mirrored that of Fedora, who said before the season began that Hood would prefer to run through opposing defenders and not necessarily around them. Players who can do that consistently and effectively are rare, and the Tar Heels have been without that kind of punishing runner in recent seasons.
Im really impressed with his strength, Turner said. Im impressed with his work ethic even more. Ever since he came in, hes always been ready. Always wanted to be in the front of the line. All of that cliché (stuff) but thats the stuff youre looking for.
Its early yet, though. And Porter has an enviable stable of running backs to work with. In addition to Hood, theres Logan and Romar Morris and Khris Francis. All have received work with the first-team offense in practice, Porter said. And all, except for Hood, have college game experience.
Hoods lack of it creates unknowns. How will he handle a disappointing play or a disappointing game? What if hes like many freshmen who are overwhelmed by the moment, let alone the grand expectations?
Elijah is mature for his age, Porter said. He understands what he needs to do to get to where he wants to be. Hes in pursuit of excellence, so he demands more of himself. So from the standpoint of having a bad practice, the way Ive seen him respond is that it motivates him.
Hood didnt receive much work on Saturday in UNCs first scrimmage. A minor, undisclosed injury limited him. He has been back practicing this week, though, and preparing for an anticipated debut that will arrive after no shortage of hype.