CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s ground game has rediscovered its traction through five games of the regular season.
Last fall, UNC ranked 81st nationally in rushing offense (151.4 ypg) and 89th in rushing yards per play (3.97) due largely to inexperience along the offensive line and at running back. Thus far in 2015, the Tar Heels rank 22nd nationally in rushing offense (219.8 ypg) and eighth in rushing yards per play (6.11).
Running backs coach Larry Porter was hesitant to credit any particular position group with the statistical jump, instead highlighting a combination of contributions.
“There are so many different elements that play into productivity,” Porter said on Tuesday. “At times, you can point to one certain area or thing, but in this case, I truly think that it’s a lot of different elements that are putting us in position to be better. I think our offensive line is better. I think our backfield is better. I think we’re better across the board at every position because we’ve got a lot of experience coming back.”
Starting tailback Elijah Hood (444 rushing yards, 5 TD) attributes the improvement to the offseason approach of being more physical with a focus on running the football.
“I think everyone bought into that mentality,” Hood said. “We had probably one of the most physical training camps we’ve ever had here, and I think that transferred right into the season with our run. Everyone is more physical. The offensive line is more physical; we’re more physical. Heck, Marquise [Williams] looked pretty physical out there, too.”
As a result, UNC’s running backs are averaging 129.6 yards per game on 5.5 yards per carry in 2015, up from 94 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry in 2014.
Williams (346 rushing yards, 4 TD) has benefitted from the ground game gains more than anyone. After leading the team in rushing with 788 yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago, the fifth-year senior quarterback is running the ball less frequently with more success.
In 2014, Williams averaged 4.1 yards per carry on roughly 15 rushes per game. This year, he’s averaging 7.9 yards per carry on 8.8 rushes per game.
“That offensive line is the reason we’re having success running the football,” head coach Larry Fedora said.
Williams agreed, saying that group’s level of experience has led to better communication and more consistent play up front.
“The offensive line is doing a great job of moving the chains,” Williams said. “When it’s 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-1, whatever it is, they’re getting that push. They are so much stronger and so confident in what they need to do to help us be the best offense in the country.”
The last time UNC ran for 200 yards or more per game in a season was 1994 (226.9).