Next Man Up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Running back was considered North Carolina’s deepest position throughout the offseason and through the midway point of the 2014 slate. That’s no longer the case, due to an injury and a suspension.

The sizable expectations that greeted the running backs entering the season have failed to materialize for a variety of reasons, ranging from consistency to injuries to a lack of holes to hit.

UNC’s entire stable of running backs has churned out 515 rushing yards on 147 carries (3.5 yards per rush) in eight games against FBS opponents.

Adding to those woes in recent weeks has been the absence of freshman tailback Elijah Hood (199 yards, 4 TD) due to an undisclosed leg injury. The former five-star recruit has missed UNC’s last three games and is expected to miss Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.

“It’s just that time of year,” running backs coach Larry Porter said on Tuesday. “You get nicked up and banged up a little bit. What it does is it serves as a great opportunity for the next guy. That’s kind of the way we approach it and we’ve got some guys that are excited about the opportunity.”

To make matters worse, junior tailback Romar Morris (162 rushing yards, 4 TD; 17 catches for 146 yards) was charged with a DWI on Nov. 2 and promptly suspended for the Pitt game by head coach Larry Fedora for a violation of team rules.

“He’s still one of ours,” Porter said of Morris. “We have not abandoned him in any way. It’s forced him to stay with us in spirit, but these guys have gathered and rallied and I think they want to play for him. We – and he – understand that he made a big mistake, but we’ve still got to go get the job done. We can’t cancel.”

Leading rusher T.J. Logan (252 yards, TD) will anchor the ground game this weekend, while fourth-string tailback Khris Francis (10 carries, 27 yards) will also factor heavily into UNC’s game plan.

“I’ve been able to get more reps and get accustomed to the line,” Francis said. “I’m takings reps with the ones now instead of the twos, so that was an adjustment. Other than that, it’s just repetition.”

Sophomore tailback Charles Brunson (54 yards, TD) has moved up from the scout team and wide receiver Damien Washington (5 catches, 61 yards) has taken reps at running back for depth purposes.

Morris’ absence not only removes his statistical production from UNC’s offense, but also his ability in pass protection.

“If you want to play, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Porter said. “As backs, we’re in the business of protection. We’re going to protect the football and we’re going to protect the quarterback. In order for you to see the field, that’s something that you must do.”

UNC includes a team period in practice where the offense works through every blitz its opponent has dialed up during the season, according to Francis. Pittsburgh is not a blitz-heavy defense, which should help limit the backs’ exposure on passing downs.

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