Mack Brown said this week that he won’t have a handle on his three-way quarterback competition until after North Carolina’s second scrimmage, given the lack of separation between the contenders so far, which given the circumstances is vaguely alarming.
No matter who wins the job, he’s going to have limited (or no) experience and be thrown into the maw against South Carolina in the opener. Even at this early stage, it would be better for the Tar Heels if there was a clear standout.
Then again, it may not matter. When dealing with unknown quantities like these, and that’s generally true across the Triangle where all three teams need new starters, the depth chart tends to be fluid.
When people talk about position battles in August, there’s really only one that matters to the vast majority of interested parties. Some years, the Triangle has a full slate of established QB starters, many with NFL scouts paying close attention. There are others where the slate starts more or less blank. This is one of the latter, especially at N.C. State and North Carolina.
There are no hard and fast certainties when dealing with young quarterbacks. Fans crave those kind of absolutes, and the position of starting quarterback has a mythology to it that no other job on the field can claim, but August’s starter can easily end up holding September’s clipboard. Larry Fedora said he took pleasure in keeping his starter a secret; it’s possible in retrospect he wasn’t playing games but didn’t have an answer.
It’s like recruiting that way: That four-star defensive end may look like a program-changer or that two-star wide receiver a sleeper, but no one will really know for sure for a couple years, and there’s no guarantee they have an impact at all. So much adaptation is required in college, on the field and on campus, that no teen goes through it unchanged.
Young QBs face new challenges
So too for the young quarterback fighting for a job, facing ACC opposition that’s bigger and faster than anything he has seen before, in unfamiliar environments with unceasing demands. Some, like Daniel Jones, will thrive unexpectedly: Jones was lightly recruited before injuries at Duke opened a path to the field and the No. 6 pick in the draft. For others, this competition is as close as they’ll ever come.
Duke is in the best position of the three schools, with senior Quentin Harris ready to take over for Jones after serving mostly as a short-yardage change-of-pace so far. There’s no guarantee Harris -- who has 78 career rushing attempts and 81 passing attempts -- will step seamlessly into the full offense. The Blue Devils, nevertheless, feel pretty good about his chances.
There’s nothing even close the Tar Heels or Wolfpack can count on at quarterback, where everything is a wild card for both teams. Each has three inexperienced players competing for the starting job, albeit under very different circumstances. The previous starter at N.C. State is in the NFL. The previous starters at North Carolina are now a linebacker and a grad assistant.
Matt McKay didn’t get to see much action behind Ryan Finley for the Wolfpack, but he’s the early leader at this point, with redshirt freshman Devin Leary and Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman also in contention.
After two seasons of Jacoby Brissett and three of Finley, it’s a rare moment of instability at the position for Dave Doeren. N.C. State really hasn’t been in this position since Doeren’s first season, when Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell battled for the job. At least this time, these are all his recruits.
Blank slate at UNC
At North Carolina, Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder both saw limited action last season before getting hurt. With Nathan Elliott off to start his coaching career at Arkansas State and Chazz Surratt on defense, Fortin and Ruder are competing with freshman Sam Howell for the job.
Even when Brown names a starter for the South Carolina game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Tar Heels rotating quarterbacks again, not out of necessity like last fall, but to give all three their best shot at showing what they can do.
Their resumes are so short at this point, one month of practice isn’t going to be enough to tell. As much as fans would prefer Brown settle on one, North Carolina’s best choice to start the season may be all of the above.