CHAPEL HILL — The other shoe dropped on the North Carolina football program Monday.
With the suspension of 13 players for their part in selling school-issued athletic shoes, including quarterback Chazz Surratt and both starting defensive ends, the Tar Heels will be forced to start the 2018 season shorthanded at several positions.
At the same time, though, the fallout from the self-reported secondary NCAA violations could have been worse.
Though Surratt was in competition for the starting job, UNC has another experienced quarterback on which to fall back in Nathan Elliott. And while ends Malik Carney and Tomon Fox must also sit out four games each, one will always be available since their suspensions have been staggered.
Of the other punished players, only defensive backs Greg Ross and Tre Shaw, and wide receiver Beau Corrales are projected as potential starters, though the suspensions of reserves Brian Anderson, Quiron Johnson, Jordan Tucker and Jonah Melton will leave the Tar Heels thin on the defensive line for the first quarter of the season.
Ross and Shaw will be sidelined for two games. Corrales, Anderson, Johnson and Tucker will be out for four. The other suspended players are reserve linebacker Malik Robinson, defensive end Tyrone Hopper (four games each) and walk-on quarterback Jack Davidson (one game).
“You never like losing players for any reason,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said shortly after the penalties were announced. “But in relating the things that happened to us last year, it’s another form of adversity we’re going to have to overcome. Our guys are doing a great job of that. They know what’s going on. They’re all aware that there could be some penalties like this, so our guys are prepared for it.”
The Tar Heels suffered through an epidemic of injuries that cost them more than 200 combined games among 37 players last season, a major contributing factor to their disappointing 3-9 finish. Seventeen of those players were listed as “out for the season” by the final game at NC State.
Unlike that situation, in which replacements had to step in to fill voids at a moment’s notice, Fedora and his staff will have three weeks before the opening game at California on Sept. 1 to adjust their depth chart and prepare backups for expanded roles.
It’s a process senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said began almost immediately after the team was informed of the suspensions late last week.
“We had (a lot of) guys go down last year, so we got hit with that right away,” Holcomb said. “We kind of dealt with it. We talked as a team and just moved on.
“We know who’s out and we’ve got a plan for every guy and how we’re going to handle it. Now we’ve got to get those guys some reps.”
Of all the adjustments that need to be made, the quarterback situation is the least of the Tar Heels’ worries.
With Surratt unavailable for the first four games, Elliott has won the competition between the two by default. Fedora said as much Monday by naming the redshirt junior his starter.
Elliott might have earned the job anyway after seeing extensive action in four games last season, including the final three as a starter. He completed 51.4 percent of his passes for 926 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions while leading UNC to two of its three victories.
“Getting that experience at the end of last year helped in a huge way,” Elliott said, “the extra year of going over the film, studying more.”
He said that while it’s nice to know he’ll be starting to begin the season, Elliott said it won’t change the way he prepares for the remainder of camp.
“I’m going to just keep competing like I have been, keep working like I have been,” he said. “I’ve always worked like I was going to be the starter, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Walk-on Manny Miles and the freshman duo of Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin will serve as Elliott’s backup until Surratt is eligible to return on Sept. 27 against Miami.
There are many more options available for replacing Carney and Fox at defensive end.
Junior Allen Cater played in all 12 games last season, recording 11 tackles. Tyler Powell is back from a knee injury that cost him all but the first two games in 2017, while redshirt freshman Jake Lawler was one of UNC’s highest-rated recruits last year.
Fedora said true freshman Chris Collins and Lancine Turay are also getting work at practice preparing to play in games.
“It’s next man up,” Carney said. “I told my D-ends to keep working. Nothing changes. This is your chance, make the most of it.”
Senior safety J.K. Britt said that in spite of the early adversity, he and his teammates are confident that they can still accomplish all their goals and have a successful season.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Britt said. “So don’t judge us by our cover. We’re going to have a great year. Preparation builds confidence, and we’re preparing every day to be champions.”