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UNC football: Freshman Elijah Hood continues to impress amid considerable hype

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/14/21/21/1c1HiL.Em.138.jpeg|192
    Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    UNC freshman tailback Elijah Hood (34) looks for running room after a handoff from quarterback Marquise Williams during the Tar Heels' Spring football game on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/14/21/21/QBg28.Em.138.jpeg|387
    Abbi O'Leary - aoleary@charlotteobserver.com
    UNC's Elijah Hood, left, breaks through a tackle during North Carolina Tar Heels' spring football practice at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte on March 28, 2014.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/14/21/21/1mDiIw.Em.138.jpeg|297
    Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    UNC freshman tailback Elijah Hood (34) lines up for a drill with sophomore running back Tyler Royal (30) on the Tar Heels' first day of practice on Friday August 1, 2014 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill.

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 Fedora’s 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 Fedora’s expectations for Hood haven’t waned two weeks into preseason camp.

“I still feel that way,” Fedora said earlier this week, referencing the praise he’d heaped on Hood before practice started. “He’s really doing some nice things. He’s got such great football savvy, and then he’s 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Hood once committed to Notre Dame and then rescinded.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 Hood’s 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, UNC’s running backs coach, said earlier this week. “I don’t.”

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 doesn’t 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 Fedora’s playbook. That enabled him to gain an understanding of the offense – and particularly about his role when the ball isn’t in his hands.

“He’s a guy that has been all-in from the standpoint of every single thing that we’ve 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 – we’re really pleased with it.”

First-year players at UNC aren’t 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 aren’t 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 Hood’s blocking ability. Landon Turner, a junior offensive lineman, gushed about Hood’s physicality.

Turner’s 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.

“I’m really impressed with his strength,” Turner said. “I’m impressed with his work ethic even more. Ever since he came in, he’s always been ready. Always wanted to be in the front of the line. All of that cliché (stuff) – but that’s the stuff you’re looking for.”

It’s early yet, though. And Porter has an enviable stable of running backs to work with. In addition to Hood, there’s 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.

Hood’s lack of it creates unknowns. How will he handle a disappointing play or a disappointing game? What if he’s 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. He’s in pursuit of excellence, so he demands more of himself. So from the standpoint of having a bad practice, the way I’ve seen him respond is that it motivates him.”

Hood didn’t receive much work on Saturday in UNC’s 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.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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