Tar Heels’ Elliott making most of his chance

With the top two quarterbacks hurt, redshirt sophomore led UNC to its first ACC win of the season

Tar Heels quarterback Nathan Elliott scrambles with the ball past Pittsburgh defensive back Dennis Briggs during their game at Heinz Field. UNC won 34-31. (Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Nathan Elliott didn’t exactly win North Carolina’s starting quarterback job. It fell to him by default after the two players ahead of him on the depth chart, Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris, were sidelined with concussions.

The thing about opportunity, though, is that it doesn’t matter how it comes about. It’s what you do with it that counts.

And Elliott is making the most of his.

A week after nearly pulling off an upset of No. 2 Miami in a relief role, the sophomore responded to his first career start by leading the Tar Heels to a 34-31 win at Pittsburgh on Thursday. It was a performance that earned him another opportunity to show what he can do Saturday at home against Western Carolina.

“Right now, he’s got to be the guy this week,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. “I haven’t started thinking about long-term stuff, but he’s got to do a great job in practice this week and be the guy that takes us into this game.”

Elliott, a redshirt sophomore who saw limited action last year as a backup to first-round NFL draft pick Mitch Trubisky, entered preseason camp as one of four quarterbacks vying for the starting job.

But it didn’t take long for him to become an odd man out of the competition as graduate transfer Harris and prized freshman Surratt emerged as the Tar Heels’ top two options.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Texas native bided his time, staying prepared as UNC suffered through a six-game losing streak that ended all hopes of a winning season and bowl bid. His patience was finally rewarded when Surratt went out early against Miami.

Elliott completed 16 of 39 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown in that game. He was also intercepted three times as the Tar Heels fell short in a 24-19 loss.

He was much better Thursday. Not only did he go 20 of 31 for 235 and two scores, he didn’t turn the ball over in helping his team earn its first victory in nearly two months and first against a Power 5 opponent in just over a year.

“I was a little more prepared this week,” Elliott said in the aftermath of the Pitt game. “I had more reps throughout the week, had a really good feel for the game plan. I felt good and I kept my eyes up.

“Sometimes in the Miami game I dropped my eyes and that’s just inexperience. I really focused on that this week and it helped a lot.”

The confidence Elliott and his offense gained in the victory only figures to grow this week against what figures to be an overmatched FCS opponent. Western Carolina (7-4) was once ranked as high as 19th in the national FCS poll, but comes into Saturday’s game at Kenan Stadium having lost two of its last three.

UNC is still dangerously thin on both sides of the ball with 19 players out for the season because of injuries. But Fedora knows that despite the massive attrition, at least his quarterback position is in capable hands with Elliott under center.

“He’s been such a great teammate, biding his time, working his butt off, never saying a word, waiting for his opportunity,” Fedora said. “And when his opportunity has come up, he’s made something out of it.”