"One of the bright things that did come out of [the game] from an offensive perspective was Erik Highsmith's performance as a receiver," head coach Butch Davis told reporters on Monday. "He made some good solid catches."
Fellow true freshman Josh Adams started as UNC's "X" receiver, but struggled early in the difficult environment of wind and rain in East Hartford. With North Carolina pinned on its own three-yard line midway through the first quarter, Highsmith – the '09 version of No. 88 – entered the game. On 3rd-and-7 from the six-yard line, quarterback T.J. Yates delivered a strike to the freshman that left the Tar Heels just inches short of a first down.
On UNC's opening possession of the second half, Yates connected with Highsmith on the left sideline for a 20-yard completion that converted a 3rd-and-20 into a much-needed first down. The freshman caught a 12-yard pass for another first down to jumpstart UNC's initial scoring drive, but his biggest play of the game came with his team down 10-3 and less than nine minutes remaining on the game clock.
Facing a 3rd-and-18 from his own 16-yard line, Yates found Highsmith across the middle for a 21-yard completion. Ten plays later, North Carolina tied the score at 10 with 2 minutes and 36 seconds left in regulation.
"He stepped up really big for us," Yates said on Monday. "The kind of defense that they were playing kind of played into his position – the ‘X' receiver. I bet you, before the game, if you asked him how many catches he was going to have, he wouldn't say [four]… I would say the same thing, but he stepped up big, came into the game and did a very good job blocking and running pass routes. He played above his years on Saturday."
While Highsmith looks slight at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds compared to his counterparts in Adams and Dwight Jones at the "X," it's already evident that he plays bigger than his size.
"He's a quick receiver [and] he's very good at getting open," Yates said. "He's a little small, a little undersized, but he makes up for it. He's very strong – he doesn't look like it, but he's very strong in the weight room. He didn't really seem like he was rattled at all, very calm. He didn't say much – just went out there and performed."
With Highsmith delivering three of UNC's 16 first downs, did Yates feel as though Nicks' ghost was wondering around the Tar Heels' sideline on Saturday?
"They look a little different, but it's familiar throwing to the ‘88' out there," Yates said, smiling.
The wide receiver corps will continue to be a work in progress for North Carolina, but Highsmith's performance on Saturday provided a needed dose of optimism for this offense.