CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While UNC’s annual spring game didn’t feature a traditional scrimmage or scoring system, it did showcase the future of Carolina football.
“We’ve got a lot of guys missing, so those young guys got a good chance to step up and show that they can play college football,” junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones after the game on Saturday. “And a lot of those guys did.”
Seven likely 2016 starters – running back Elijah Hood, wide receiver Bug Howard, tight end Brandon Fritts, middle linebacker Andre Smith, safety Donnie Miles and defensive ends Dajaun Drennon and Mikey Bart - missed Saturday’s spring game due to injury, which gave UNC’s early enrollees more reps than they may have expected.
Eight player skipped their final semesters in high school to enroll in January to jumpstart their collegiate careers, and more than a few made their presence felt on Saturday. Running back Jordon Brown led all rushers with 85 yards on 11 carries, while linebacker Jonathan Smith and defensive backs Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk were factors on the defensive side of the ball.
“They were in extensive playing time in meaningful time in all of the scrimmages and all of the practices, Myles Dorn, Myles Wolfork, Jonathan Smith, they got a lot over there,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “It was impressive to see what they were able to handle.”
The holes in the depth chart also gave the freshmen their first to showcase their talents in front of a public audience.
“There were some young guys that got an opportunity to get out there in front of a crowd for the first time and get some butterflies out of their stomachs and not really do as well as they had been,” Fedora said. “And they’ll learn from that experience so that next time they go out there, if it’s Sept. 3, they’ll be a little bit better.”
The defensive rookies were not afforded the luxury their teammates had last spring when Gene Chizik and his staff focused solely on the bare bone elements of his 4-3 scheme. This spring has included a more complex defensive playbook, thereby increasing the learning curve for the early enrollees.
“It’s been a huge testament to how fast the new guys picked up everything, because the coaching staff took it as we’re picking up where we left off,” junior linebacker Cayson Collins said. “The younger guys that came in, like Jon Smith and J.B. Copeland, they came in and picked everything up tremendously fast.”
Smith, in particular, stood out amongst teammates as a player who made significant progress throughout spring camp.
“Jon Smith is a guy that I really think will be able to help us immediately going into fall,” Collins said. “He’s a guy that I think we’ll see a lot out of.”
Senior cornerback Des Lawrence agreed, saying, “Jon Smith at the linebacker position, he’s about where Andre Smith was last year right around this time.”
In the secondary, Dorn has already earned the respect of senior leaders like Lawrence.
“Myles is going to be a big-time player here,” Lawrence said. “Whether he comes off the bench or whether he starts, he’s going to make an impact on the game just because he likes to be around the ball and he’s going to hit whoever’s around it.”
And while the quick learning of UNC’s newest batch of players is a plus, it’s also combined with natural talent.
“There’s a whole lot of talent; those guys are so, so athletic,” sophomore defensive lineman Robert Dinkins said. “It’s just a matter of them just being here and learning the defense. Once they learn that, it’s going to be pretty crazy.”