Four-way battle looming for Tar Heels starting QB job

Three untested youngsters and a graduate transfer from LSU will be vying for the starting job when UNC opens preseason camp on Wednesday

Quarterbacks Nathan Elliott (11), Chazz Surratt (12) and walkon Manny Miles (16) walk off the field after UNC's spring game last April

The North Carolina football team begins its preseason camp on Wednesday and while the Tar Heels have plenty of holes to fill and questions to answer, especially on the offensive side of the ball, most of the attention will be on the quarterback position.

Coach Larry Fedora’s original plan was to have the trio of sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd spend another year gaining experience as backups to Mitch Trubisky.

But that went out the window when Trubisky left after his junior season to become the second overall pick in the NFL draft last April.

Although none of the three young holdovers were able to separate themselves from the others during spring practice and win the starting job, Fedora has expressed confidence that at least one of them will be ready to take over by the Tar Heels’ season opener against California on Sept. 2.

Just in case, the veteran coach has come up with a Plan B by bringing in graduate transfer Brandon Harris from LSU. It’s anyone’s guess at this point who will emerge from the crowded competition and become the leader of UNC’s rebuilt offense. Here’s how Fedora handicaps the field as the race gets ready to begin:

■ Nathan Elliott, 6-1, 215, sophomore: “Nathan is a lefty who throws the ball well, has made good decisions in practice, is the only guy there that has any experience in our football team in our offense. He’s not going to be the fastest guy out there, but he can run the football.”

■ Logan Byrd, 6-3, 230, r-freshman: “Logan is about 6-3, can run, has a really strong arm. Again, he is in that learning stage with the offense and being a guy that can have great presence behind the center.”

■ Chazz Surratt, 6-3, 215, r-freshman: “Chazz Surratt is a tremendous athlete, is extremely fast, can run and can throw it. He’s a lefty who has led his team to state championships, both on the football field and in basketball. So he’s an athlete who has a chance to be really good.”

■ Brandon Harris, 6-3, 220, graduate: “Brandon Harris is a guy, I can tell you, coming out of high school we thought really fit what we did. He can run, he can throw, has a strong arm and has played in big games. He’s not going to get rattled. He’s thrown touchdowns, he’s thrown interceptions. He understands that part of it. It’s going to be how quickly he can learn everything and integrate into our football team.”

Elliott saw action in four games as Trubisky’s backup last season, completing eight of his nine passes for 55 yards and a nine-yard touchdown to Jordan Cunningham in a win against The Citadel. He was the most effective of the three returnees in last April’s spring game, going 8 of 12 for 213 yards and three touchdowns.

Surratt took the first snaps in that intrasquad scrimmage, going 5 of 14 for 90 yards while Byrd was 12 of 21 for 120 yards and one score — a 29-yard strike on the game’s final play.

Harris, who was named on the preseason watch list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, started 15 games at LSU, completing 187 of his 347 passes for 2,756 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 370 yards and seven touchdowns.

Fedora indicated the four will start out even when camp begins and will ultimately determine who wins the job by their performance in practice. He said he’s openly concerned about the Tar Heels’ lack of experience at quarterback, noting that no one thought of Trubisky in terms of being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft at this time last year.

“We’ll get those guys a bunch of reps,” Fedora said. “Hopefully someone will establish themselves early enough so they can start getting more reps at the quarterback position.”

As for when that will happen, Fedora said the sooner, the better. But he added that the competition could conceivably go on until the week before the season opener against Cal.

“I don’t think any of them expect to be Mitch Trubisky and we don’t want them to be Mitch Trubisky,” the UNC coach said. “We want them to be themselves. We want them to do a great job of making decisions and to take care of the ball. If they do those things they’ll be okay. And obviously they’ll have to be able to lead our football team.”