The most recent time, before this summer, that North Carolina’s starting quarterback competition endured amid so much mystery, and secrecy, was in 2014, when Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky spent the entire preseason competing for the job. Or so everyone thought at the time.
After the Tar Heels began that season with a sluggish victory against Liberty, Williams, ever the personable showman, could no longer hide the truth. He tried to tell reporters that he’d learned the day of the first game that he’d earned the starting job, but his laughter gave away the fib.
“I found out, like, about two weeks ago, to be honest with you guys,” he said then of when he was named the starter. “I just had to keep it under cover. You know, we’re doing what coaches want us to do, keeping things under cover, and having some fun with it. It had you guys guessing, didn’t it?”
Indeed, the presumed uncertainty – all for naught, it turned out – did have media members and fans guessing. And so it is again, three years later, amid similar circumstances. The Tar Heels are now less than two weeks from beginning the season against California on Sept. 2, and there has been no indication – no public indication, at least – about who their starting quarterback will be.
For a while, UNC coach Larry Fedora said it was a four-way competition, though that never appeared likely. Now Fedora and other members of the coaching staff say the competition is down to three, though that doesn’t seem quite right, either.
Less than two weeks before its first game, the reality for UNC is this: It’d be a surprise if its opening-game starting quarterback wasn’t either Brandon Harris or Chazz Surratt, and it’d be most surprising of all if it wasn’t Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU.
Fedora, to the surprise of no one, won’t concede such obviousness. There is no benefit, after all – not for the involved players (who may, or may not, still find themselves in a true competition), and not for his team, which could use any possible advantage, including the element of surprise, entering a season with so many unknowns.
Ask Fedora about the ongoing quarterback competition, and he’ll say what he’s been saying for weeks:
“They’re all competing,” he said on Monday, again. “That’s what I like. They’re all competing. So we’ve still got a ways to go before somebody separates themselves. But I like the way they’re competing.”
And did any quarterback stand out in UNC’s most recent scrimmage, its third of the preseason?
“No,” Fedora said.
We’ve seen this show before. Fedora, like a lot of coaches, is a big believer in creating the perception – whether it’s real or not – of preseason competition at every position. For Fedora to acknowledge that a player is a likely starter at a given position is for him to run out of room to deny the obvious.
Even then he can be equivocal. On offense, Fedora has said that only three starting positions are spoken for: Austin Proehl at receiver, Bentley Spain (who has been hampered by nagging injury in the preseason) at left tackle, Brandon Fritts at tight end.
That leaves several unknowns, though some of those positions undoubtedly are more secure than others. At quarterback, Harris, the graduate transfer, became the favorite to win the job as soon as he arrived on campus.
Fedora and his staff sought the services of a graduate transfer quarterback after Trubisky left school to enter the NFL draft. Trubisky’s decision to leave caught no one off guard by the end of last season but, before it began, the expectation was that Trubisky would start at UNC for two seasons.
That would have created an easy, and natural, path of succession, with Surratt and fellow redshirt sophomore Logan Byrd competing, presumably, to take over for Trubisky in 2018. The transition happened more quickly than Fedora anticipated, though, and neither Surratt nor Byrd, still redshirt freshmen, appeared ready to take on a larger role when Trubisky left.
Which is how Harris arrived. He didn’t come to UNC with the expectation of not playing during his final college season. Fedora, though, promised Harris nothing – only the chance to compete for the position.
From the beginning, Harris’ greatest challenge has been making up for lost time. UNC’s other returning quarterbacks – Surratt, Byrd and Nathan Elliott, who was Trubisky’s backup – have all been around the playbook long enough to understand the basic tenets of the offense.
Harris, meanwhile, began learning UNC’s offense when he arrived on campus in late May.
“He’s really done a great job of coming in and learning, absorbing,” Keith Heckendorf, UNC’s quarterbacks coach, said on Monday. “To do that, you’ve got to put in the time. I mean, the guy has been studying day and night.
“He knew from the get-go he was behind … but he’s done a great job of immersing himself not only in the playbook, but in this football team. And I think the guys have really gravitated to him in terms of his personality, his style and from the leadership that he brings to the table. So I’m very proud of him.”
How Harris has fared throughout the preseason – how any UNC quarterback has fared – is a mystery, given that UNC closes its practices and scrimmages to the public and media. Any word that might escape the confines is filtered, too, through the lens of the observer.
And so UNC’s quarterback competition continues largely in secret, if it’s even still a competition at all. Publicly, at least, it’s more likely than not to remain that way right up until the season opener against Cal on Sept. 2, when, finally, clarity will arrive.
In the meantime, expect to hear more of the same from Fedora.
“We’re waiting for somebody to separate themselves,” he said on Monday, repeating one of his standbys, “and when somebody does, that guy will be named the starter. If he doesn’t, then we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do. And we’ll put somebody out there on the first play, I promise you.”