Javonte Williams and Michael Carter lead the running back group at North Carolina. That’s reason enough to be excited about UNC football, especially as this two-headed monster gets ready for a larger share of the offense in 2020.
During the debut season in Chapel Hill of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, UNC football turned things around. The Tar Heels finished second in the ACC in offensive efficiency, per ESPN, though there was an absolute gulf between No. 1 Clemson and North Carolina.
Regardless, it was a massive jump for the Tar Heels, who ranked 13th in the ACC in offensive efficiency in 2017 and 2018. Longo’s wide open offense, which relies on run-pass options (RPO), proved to be ideal for freshman savant quarterback Sam Howell, who shattered plenty of records during his first college season.
North Carolina’s offense has plenty of kinetic perimeter elements, too; the receiver trio of Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome and Beau Corrales is one of the country’s best.
But Carter and Williams do so much for the Tar Heels on offense — in all phases of the game. For North Carolina to push through and hit its next level as a program, Carter and Williams must continue to emerge.
There’s so much room for activities!
During the 2019 season — in Longo’s spread attack — Carter carried the ball 177 times for 1,003 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Carter, who has always been a solid receiver out of the backfield at UNC, also caught 21 passes (fifth most on the roster) for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Williams, on the other hand, ran for 933 yards and five touchdowns on 166 carries (5.6 yards per carry, an eight percent increase from 2018). As a sophomore in 2019, Williams more than doubled his freshman output in terms of receptions: 17 catches, 176 yards and a touchdown, which came against NC State.
In 2019, only five ACC running backs averaged five or more yards per carry (150 carries minimum), while also catching at least 15 passes. That group, which includes Williams and Carter, also features Travis Etienne, one of the greatest skill position players in ACC history, and Cam Akers, a second round pick of the Los Angeles Rams.
If you extend those same parameters out to the entire FBS, only one other set of teammates hit those benchmarks together: Central Michigan’s Kobe Lewis and Jonathan Ward.
Special Versatility — Literally
While playing on special teams, Carter also returned 19 kickoffs for 466 yards — 24.5 yards per attempt (No. 4 in the ACC). Carter finished fourth in the ACC in all-purpose yards per game (124.8), behind only Etienne, AJ Dillon and Javian Hawkins.
This is getting a little friendly with filters, but Carter was the only Power Five player last season to record 1,000 yards rushing, 100 yards receiving and 400 yards on kick returns.
Going back to the 2000 season, Carter is one of only four ACC players to hit all three of those benchmarks in the same season. He’s the first to accomplish that since NC State’s Nyheim Hines in 2017.
Go one step deeper; you’ll like what you find
The advanced numbers also paint a pretty picture in terms of impact for North Carolina’s running backs. According to ESPN, UNC ranked second (behind Clemson) in the ACC last season in yards per carry on first down (5.56) and yards after contact per carry (3.38). Both Carter and Williams averaged over six yards per carry on first down.
North Carolina also averaged 5.41 yards per carry on plays with seven or fewer defenders in the box, which ranked third in the ACC, per ESPN. This is where those RPO concepts can be so dangerous.
In terms of pass protection, the running backs held their own, too. Along with Clemson and Virginia, North Carolin was one of only three ACC teams to average over 115 drop-backs per blown block from a running back in 2019.
One area of weakness — maintaining possession of the football — can be worked on, too. Tar Heel running backs ranked 11th in the conference in fumble rate, fumbling on 2.34 percent of their touches. Drop that rate under two percent — a manageable expectation — and the overall efficiency should jump even higher.
Most rushing yards on RPOs by returning Power 5 RBs in 2019:
1. Javonte Williams, UNC- 704
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson – 674
3. Michael Carter, UNC – 673
4. A.J. Rose, Kentucky – 598 pic.twitter.com/sAExW7zUKu
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 20, 2020
According to Pro Football Focus, Carter and Williams both rank as top 15 returning running backs this season in college ball. Williams produced the most runs of 10+ yards with 29 from RPO plays; he also averaged 4.5 yards after contact per attempt. Carter finished 2019 with the 10th-most broken tackles per attempt out of an RPO, per PFF.