CHAPEL HILL — Their numbers were the only thing they had in common with the players they replaced. Hakeem Nicks wore No. 88. Erik Highsmith was given No. 88. Brandon Tate wore No. 87. Jheranie Boyd was given No. 87.
The two true freshmen were being asked to replace two of the most dangerous wide receivers in North Carolina history in number, and only in number.
I remember Hakeem and Brandon Tate leaving, and seeing these two young guys, replacing them in their numbers, North Carolina senior guard Jonathan Cooper said. I remember thinking, Who are these guys? How dare they give them those jerseys?
Three years later, going into Saturdays ACC opener at Wake Forest, Highsmith and Boyd are a long way from the confused freshmen who found themselves on the football field far earlier than either expected. Highsmith is the Tar Heels No. 1 possession receiver. Boyd hasnt been as prolific, but his pure speed is always a threat.
In the fall of 2009, Nicks, Tate and Brooks Foster were all gone, taking with them 114 of UNCs 164 receptions in 2008. Greg Little, a converted running back, was the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart. The No. 2 receiver was Dwight Jones, who hurt his knee in training camp and would catch only five passes all season. Even tight end Zach Pianalto was untested at that point.
Highsmith was supposed to redshirt, but both he and Boyd were thrown into the lineup quickly, along with another true freshman, Joshua Adams. They had to learn on the job, and their growing pains were a big reason for T.J. Yates well-documented struggles that year.
But they also contributed. Highsmith, from Vanceboro, had 37 catches for 425 yards and two touchdowns after exploding against East Carolina in his first start. Boyd, from Gastonia, had 12 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns, most of that coming in one game against N.C. State.
I remember first week, me and Jhay Boyd were scout team, Highsmith said. First game was Citadel. Next week, somebody got hurt, and they moved us up to go against the scout team. We still didnt expect to play. We just did it because we were low in numbers. End of the game, fourth quarter, they threw us in there.
Next game, Josh Adams and Dwight Jones got hurt and I was a starter. Just getting thrown in the fire so quick, I think that helped me out. Now Im just really telling the freshmen, you never know when your chance is going to come. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
Now, three years later, Highsmith and Boyd are just short of starting over again, learning how to play the receiver position in new coach Larry Fedoras spread offense. The fundamentals and techniques are the same, but the rest of it is new. Most of that took place in the spring. Now, theyre trying to help teach the freshmen.
Both Highsmith and Boyd were among the 14 Tar Heels receivers to catch passes in the 62-0 win over Elon on Saturday. True to form, Highsmith led the team with three catches for 44 yards, while Boyds only catch was a 35-yard touchdown.
Regardless of their relative roles, after three years playing alongside each other, the two Mookie and Jhay are inseparably paired in the minds of their teammates, Tar Heel fans and each other.
Twin towers, they used to call us, Highsmith said.
Weve been beside each other for four years, Boyd said. Weve got no choice but to like each other!
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