New coaches at UNC, ECU use spring to examine rosters

The Tar Heels’ Mack Brown and Pirates’ Mike Houston get a first look at their new teams

Tar Heels mascot Rameses plays catch with young fans during the Blue & White Game last Saturday at Kenan Memorial Stadium. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

The thing about spring football games is that regardless of the scoring system that’s used, nobody ever loses and everybody walks away saying that they accomplished everything they set out to do.

The goals, of course, differ depending on the situation.

At some schools, the intrasquad scrimmages and the 14 practices leading up to them are used to improve on deficiencies from the previous season or audition young players to step into more significant roles next fall. At others such as North Carolina and East Carolina, they’re an opportunity for new coaches to get a first look at their personnel and assess just how big a job they have ahead between now and the time preseason camps open this summer.

“We had no clue who we were when we got here,” the Tar Heels’ Mack Brown said Saturday after putting his team through a 65-play scrimmage at Kenan Stadium. “You don’t know your team. You really don’t know what you’ve got. You don’t know your deficiencies.

“You know how many scholarships you’ve got, but how many of those guys can play? It’s not your numbers as much as it is guys that can play. Now we know who we are.”

Even with that familiarity, UNC is very much a work in progress with plenty of questions to answer before taking on South Carolina at the Belk College Kickoff in Charlotte on Aug. 31.

The same can be said for ECU, which will play its first game under Mike Houston that same day at NC State.

Like Brown, who returns to Chapel Hill 22 years after his successful first tenure at UNC, Houston said that he and his staff plan to use the tape of their team’s Purple & Gold scrimmage Saturday as an evaluating tool to determine how best to use their current personnel.

And at which positions they still need more help if they can find it.

“We’ll spend time in the junior colleges this spring and we’ll be evaluating grad transfer options,” said Houston, the former James Madison coach who was hired in December following ECU’s three straight nine-loss seasons under Scottie Montgomery. “We have specific needs and things that we’re looking for now to bolster our roster.

“I think the big thing for our coaching staff is Monday morning we’re going to spend all morning dissecting this tape. After we watch the tape, we’re going to get together and do a complete evaluation of our roster, top to bottom. We probably will have some cuts, we probably are going to bring in some more players this summer. So our roster is not finalized yet for the 2019 season.”

One area at which the Pirates are set is quarterback, where incumbent starter Holton Ahlers has firmly established himself as the team’s leader and star in the making. The rising sophomore led his offense to a pair of touchdowns and field goal in his six possessions Saturday while going 10 of 19 for 118 yards through the air.

His backup and former starter Reid Herring was equally effective, going 10 of 18 for 100 yards and a touchdown while true freshman Bryan Gagg completed both his passes and rushed for an 18-yard score on day in which ECU rolled up 426 yards on 87 plays and didn’t commit a single turnover.

“I thought the consistent way in which the offense moved the ball was pleasing to see,” Houston said. “We had minimal errors on that side of the ball.”

While the quarterback position is by far the Pirates’ greatest strength coming out of the spring, it’s an area that is perhaps UNC’s biggest unknown.

The situation under center is so up in the air that Brown didn’t even bother to establish a pecking order among redshirt freshmen Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin, and freshman Sam Howell, instead waiting until the fall to start determining “who gets the ball in the end zone the easiest and the fastest.

“We still don’t know enough about the quarterbacks. I think all three of them are good,” the new/old Tar Heels coach said. “This is a difficult offense for the quarterback, so we told the quarterbacks to take the pressure off who is going to start and who is going to play. It doesn’t matter.”

Of the three, Ruder had the best numbers, going 5 of 7 for 143 yards and a six-yard touchdown run while leading the offense to a pair of scores. Howell was 10 of 16 for 131 yards and a 42-yard scoring strike to Roscoe Johnson on which he showed off his strong throwing arm while Fortin was 2 of 6 for 39 yards.

Another Tar Heel that’s played quarterback, Chazz Surratt, made his debut as a linebacker and earned praise from Brown for his quick transition to a defense that caused a pair of turnovers Saturday — an interception by veteran Dominique Ross and a fumble that was returned for a 44-yard touchdown by true freshman cornerback Storm Duck.

Although Brown said that his team still has plenty of issues to iron out, especially depth on defense, holdovers such as defensive end Tomon Fox came away encouraged by what they saw Saturday.

“Coming out here for the spring game, it made us feel like everything is starting over,” Fox said. “It’s like we won the day today and we’re starting the season 1-0.”