September 3, 2014

UNC freshman Elijah Hood recaptures familiar feeling in first college game

The first memorable carry of Elijah Hood’s time at North Carolina looked like a lot of the ones that made him one of the top running back prospects in the nation at Charlotte Catholic High. The play ended with a would-be tackler on his back and has become a popular Internet video clip.

The first memorable carry of Elijah Hood’s time at North Carolina looked like a lot of the ones that made him one of the top running back prospects in the nation at Charlotte Catholic High.

Here was Hood, running around the line of scrimmage, legs and arms churning, turning a corner, a defender approaching. Here he was lowering his head just a bit, and then his shoulder, and then here was a defender – in this case Liberty cornerback Justin Guillory – approaching.

They collided near midfield Saturday night. Hood continued another few yards while Guillory fell to his back, his momentum carrying his legs over his head while the crowd at Kenan Stadium released a soft noise of approval – a noise halfway between a roar and a sound of condolence.

Hood had watched it. By Tuesday, friends and family members had sent him the clip.

“I’ve seen it a couple times now,” he said.

The run was but one play in what turned out to be a lopsided 56-29 UNC victory. For Hood, though, it was the defining play of his first college game – a play that showed what coach Larry Fedora had been talking about for months, what Hood’s teammates had been seeing and what had been splashed over YouTube during his recruitment.

The run, which came on third-and-1, went for 10 yards and moved the Tar Heels into Liberty territory not long before halftime. Moments later, the drive ended with a touchdown. After the game, somebody had already uploaded the clip to Vine, and the link spread.

By Wednesday, the clip had more than 125,000 “loops” – or views – of the 7-second second sequence. Apparently, running into people, and over them, makes for popular video watching on the Internet.

Saturday night was an otherwise modest debut for Hood. He carried eight times for 43 yards, with a long of 18. That collision, though – the feel of running into something, and through it – brought comfort and a sense of accomplishment.

“It was just like, OK, I can still do it,” said Hood, who did this kind of thing countless times in high school. “The safeties and (defensive backs need to) kind of watch out – because I’m not afraid.”

Had he doubted that defenders might not have been afraid? That opposing players questioned his ability to run them over?

Hood thought about it and smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But if I have (to go) out of bounds or (through) you, I’m going to you.”

Hood arrived at UNC in January after a much-publicized recruitment. He had committed to Notre Dame and then backed out. Then, in another moment of Internet video stardom, Hood flushed Alabama recruiting letters down the commode.

“It’s pretty dead, I guess,” he said of the reaction that followed. “I see some hashtags about it a little, but they’re good champs about it.”

The expectations never relented. Few UNC freshman have arrived with the fanfare of Hood, who was a five-star prospect ranked among the best running backs in the country.

Fedora didn’t quell those expectations any when in late July he said Hood had picked up the playbook, and his technical assignments, faster than any freshman he’d ever coached. The expectations didn’t decrease any, either, when stories of Hood’s weightlifting acumen began to spread.

Have you heard the one about Hood squatting 605 pounds?

“In high school, I could do five (hundred) and I never really went above that,” Hood said. “So the strength and conditioning staff let me start going up, so from there I’ve just started going up.”

Fedora dialed back the expectations before Hood’s first game. He said he just expected Hood to play intelligently, that he expected him to protect the ball and not fumble.

That’s what Hood did. Along the way, he ran through a hapless defensive player and provided the kind of highlight people had grown to expect. Only this time, Hood was wearing a UNC uniform.

The expectations were nothing new for him, he said. He has been dealing with them for years. He always wondered how he might exceed them, then he’d do something that made him wonder how he’d exceed that. And so the cycle went.

Entering Saturday, though, he said he didn’t put much pressure on himself. He had no grand visions. His first carry came in the second quarter. No gain. His second carry wound up with a defender on his back, and his first memorable play in a college game.

“I want to lower the shoulder, I want to get the tough yards,” Hood said. “And I want defenders to know that.”

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