Route to success a familiar one for UNC receiver Austin Proehl

Proehl has raised his game to become one of quarterback Mitch Trubiskys favorite targets, setting career highs for catches in each of the past two games

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Bug Howard (84) and North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Austin Proehl (7) celebrate Howard's touchdown in the fourth quarter of the college football game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL — It wasn’t just postgame coach hyperbole last week when Larry Fedora punctuated a dramatic win against Pittsburgh by proclaiming wide receiver Austin Proehl as the best route-runner on the North Carolina football team.The kid really is.That’s because he’s been running those routes ever since he actually was a kid.We’re not talking about your typical backyard “go long and I’ll hit you” kind routes, either. As the son of long-time NFL receiver Ricky Proehl, the budding Tar Heel star spent his formative years learning and catching passes from some of the best in the business.That list of passers includes Super Bowl champions and a Heisman Trophy winner.”I have pictures of me in like ’97 maybe, I had a Bears jersey on and one of those plastic helmets little kids get for Christmas and I’m out there running routes,” said Proehl, who was about four years old at the time. “[Dad] kept throwing me balls. Some of them hit me in the face. I kept trying to catch them.”As he got older and more proficient at bringing passes in, the quality of Proehl’s practice partners also improved.”I’ve always had balls thrown to me from my dad, from Kurt Warner, guys like that, just throwing balls to me, messing around with me,” Proehl said. “Ever since I was a freshman in high school I’ve been a ball boy for the Panthers and I always caught up Cam [Newton] and Derek Anderson before games and training camp. That goes back to hard work.”As much as that preparation helped Proehl grow into a standout at Charlotte’s Providence High, where he earned Shrine Bowl recognition by catching 89 passes for 1,190 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, it took awhile for his college career to gain traction.He made meaningful contributions during his first two seasons at UNC, including his first touchdown last year against Illinois. But with the likes of Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard playing ahead of him, his opportunities were somewhat limited.That has changed this fall.Although everyone but Davis among the Tar Heels’ deep, talented receiving corps is back, Proehl has raised his game to become one of quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s favorite targets. He caught a career-high five passes for 82 yards two weeks ago in a win against James Madison, then topped that with seven grabs for 99 yards and a touchdown in the come-from-behind 37-36 victory against Pitt.Last Saturday, Proehl earned his first career start and contributed four receptions, including a key 44-yarder to help set up a touchdown in UNC’s 37-35 upset of Florida State in Tallahassee.”In the Proehl family, we’re all late bloomers,” his father said. “I was a late bloomer, he was a late bloomer, my youngest [Blake] who is going to East Carolina is too. The thing with Austin is that he’s worked hard in the weight room. He’s always had the speed and been a confident kid, but now he’s got the strength and it’s made a difference. He just needed an opportunity.”There were times when he was frustrated. He wanted to contribute and feel a part of helping Carolina win games. The last three weeks, from a mindset standpoint, have helped him a great deal because now he knows truly he can play and play at a high level.” He ranks second on the team with 15 receptions heading into Saturday’s ACC showdown with Florida State in Tallahassee.”We all know what he’s capable of and I’m glad I can get him the rock,” Trubisky said of Proehl. “He’s been making a lot of plays for this offense. He’s a great player, a great teammate, he’s doing his job. When he steps on the field, he gives us great effort and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what I want to see as a quarterback in my receivers, that I can depend on those guys when I throw it their way, they’re going to come down with it.”Proehl did just that on one of the biggest plays of UNC’s comeback from 13 points down in the final seven minutes against Pitt.His 13-yard conversion on fourth-and-six from the Panthers’ 40 helped extend a drive that saw the Tar Heels go 63 yards on 17 plays for the winning touchdown with just two seconds left on the Kenan Stadium clock. It was the kind of clutch catch — at the end of a precise route — for which his father became famous during a 17-year pro career that included Super Bowl appearances with the Panthers, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts.His father was the consummate possession receiver, who caught 669 passes in the NFL for 8,878 yards and 54 touchdowns.”That guy can run routes,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of the younger Proehl. “That’s probably a credit to his dad and the years of experience growing up as a football rat. He’s got great hands, he can make all the catches and he made some crucial catches for us [Saturday].”Although Proehl gets most of his coaching these days from Fedora and wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer, he still leans on his father for advice and constructive criticism. He often gets texts from him after games with comments about his performance.These days, there’s more advice than criticism. But it hasn’t always been that way. — “Sometimes with kids, they’ve been around it, their dad played in the NFL, they think they can just go out and make it,” Ricky Proehl said. “You need to tell them it’s just not that easy. I was hard on him early on. I know that hurt his feelings. But then once it clicked for him, now it’s just about coaching and teaching — not just as a dad, but as a coach who understands what he’s doing.” — Because of that knowledge, the elder Proehl is realistic enough to know that Austin still has work left to do in order to earn a shot at playing professionally. — But if the son succeeds at getting to where his father once excelled, there might come a day in which he becomes better known for being the star receiver whose father who once played in the NFL than for being Ricky’s little boy. — “I know he was the best at what he did — route running, third downs, making big plays when his team needed a big play to be made,” Austin Proehl said. “To be able to have him in my ear all the time, some people don’t like it but I love it because I want to get to where he was at one time. — “I don’t have big hands and I’m not a big guy obviously. Those things like route running and catching every ball that’s thrown to me, I take pride in because those are opportunities to make a name for myself.” — Not that he has a problem with being mentioned in the same breath with dear old dad. — “A lot of people ask me if it bothers me and it doesn’t,” Proehl said. “He’s earned that respect and I love being his son. I love being associated with that.”