From quarterbacks to injuries: A one-on-one interview with UNC coach Mack Brown

When North Carolina finished its spring football game two months ago, coach Mack Brown was left with some unanswered questions.

For one, it wasn’t clear which quarterback would likely start when UNC opens its 2019 season against South Carolina on Aug. 31.

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None of the three quarterbacks -- redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder, and true freshman Sam Howell -- stood out among the others.

And with so many injuries in the offseason, it’s still unclear how good UNC’s defense will be.

Earlier this week, The News & Observer’s UNC beat writer, Jonathan Alexander, had a one-on-one interview with Brown. Here’s what Brown had to say about his team.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown walks away from a team huddle during the Tar Heels’ Spring football game on Saturday, April 13, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Alexander: How do you think the team finished after spring practice?

Brown: The worst thing, this spring, five probable starters on defense didn’t practice any. So we had no depth. So the defense was at such a disadvantage because you had (Jason) Strowbridge (DT), you couldn’t get Aaron Crawford (DT) hurt, so you used him sparingly, then you’ve got Myles Wolfolk (DB), Myles Dorn (DB), Allen Cater (DE) and Tyrone Hopper (DL) -- none of them got to play. So we don’t know who we are yet on defense. And we weren’t very good some.

We’re still waiting on the appeal for Cam Kelly (Kelly, a defensive back, transferred from Auburn in March). The defensive back transferring in from Virginia Tech (Bryce Watts) will have to lay out. He doesn’t have an appeal. That’s kind of all we’re waiting on.

I think the biggest question will be those three quarterbacks. How do we manage those? Who starts? Are they ready to go when we’re ready to go? One lucky thing is (Phil) Longo coached against South Carolina last year at Ole Miss. So he knows what they’re doing defensively, and we’ll move the ball really well. So he’ll go into that game with a lot of confidence.

Alexander: What makes you most nervous about the quarterbacks?

Brown: I think all three of them (Fortin, Ruder and Howell) are good enough. And that’s so unusual. The question is going to be -- and they’ve all been really nice to each other. They all get along. They’re all good in the room, so I don’t know. It’ll be really interesting to see how it all pans out.

Alexander: What are the biggest strengths of each quarterback?

Brown: Cade (Fortin) is probably, he’s got the old, prototypical NFL arm. He’s tall. He looks the field well and can throw the out (route). A little bit shy. Not as aggressive with the team.

Jace (Ruder), he’s not been in a passing offense. He’s more of a runner. He’s big. I think he’s 6-2, 225 or something. And can fly. He’s really aggressive. His throwing got much better this spring. But he’s had a sore elbow. That affected it some.

From left, North Carolina quarterbacks Cade Fortin (6), Jace Ruder (10) and Sam Howell (7) run drills during UNC’s first spring football practice in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, March 3, 2019. Ethan Hyman

And probably Sam (Howell) is halfway between. He’s a really good thrower. He’s very accurate. He probably runs more like Cade, not nearly as athletic as Jace. ... He doesn’t talk a lot. He hasn’t been outwardly aggressive at all as a leader.

So that’s why we decided, let’s let them all get settled. Let’s let them all find their place and then we’ll worry about who’s going to play in the fall.

Alexander: How is junior running back Michael Carter coming a long (with his injury)?

Brown: He’s really good, and his thumb is good. He’s such a great kid. Oh my God, he’s a great kid. He’ll be interesting because he’s been hurt and we’ve got to use him enough, but not overuse him so he gets hurt, we’ve got to keep him healthy.

North Carolina’s Michael Carter (8) races ahead of Duke’s Marquise Waters (10) on a 40 yard romp for a touchdown in the first quarter against Duke on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

If he has a great year, even at his size, does he go to the NFL, because he can. But I mean, there’s never been a better kid.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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