UNC still looking for answers at QB after excruciating loss

Former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant visited North Carolina on Saturday, October 13, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Fans in the UNC student section chanted his name as he greeted them.
Former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant visited North Carolina on Saturday, October 13, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Fans in the UNC student section chanted his name as he greeted them.

So who, exactly, is North Carolina’s quarterback of the future? The true freshman thrown into the blender against a Bud Foster defense for his first start, or the famous graduate transfer from Clemson considering playing the final season of his career in Chapel Hill who was on the sideline during warmups Saturday night?

Cade Fortin or Kelly Bryant?

Bryant visited, Fortin started and Nathan Elliott relieved in Saturday’s excruciating 22-19 loss to Virginia Tech, in which the North Carolina defense held strong until a final, back-breaking, 98-yard drive while the offense left, roughly, 31 points on the field – most crucially a goal-line fumble by Michael Carter as the Tar Heels attempted to put the game away late.

Even on a night when the defense plays as well as it did, the North Carolina offense remains stuck in neutral – a potentially fatal flaw for a Larry Fedora program, since his teams are going to win by outscoring people, and his offense is going to continue to struggle without a dynamic quarterback running it.

Marquise Williams, at one point all but forgotten early in his time at UNC, thrived in the Fedora offense. (He was also in attendance Saturday.) Mitch Trubisky flourished, perhaps even too much, exiting for the NFL a year early before the Tar Heels could groom a replacement.

That may explain part of last season’s 3-9 record but the Trubisky Excuse only goes so far.

Fedora knew he would need a quarterback this season, and neither Chazz Surratt nor Elliott has looked capable of filling the role yet, this season or last. Surratt was suspended for the first three games for moonlighting as a shoe wholesaler and played part of the Miami game before suffering a season-ending injury. The turnover-prone Elliott, a battler whose guts exceed his ability, looked good against Pittsburgh but made way for Fortin during the off week after the Miami loss, only to be pressed back into service after Fortin was knocked out of the game late in the first half.

The Tar Heels also had receivers Dazz Newsome and Anthony Ratliff-Williams throw passes, because at this point, why not?

Fedora address the media following the Tar Heels' loss to Virginia Tech.

So it’s hard to blame North Carolina fans for making googly eyes at Bryant, the Clemson quarterback who lost his starting job to freshman Trevor Lawrence, the lanky-locked Mitch Kramer doppelganger, and promptly filed for free agency.

Bryant threw for more than 2,800 yards and ran for another 600-plus in the Clemson offense last season and would give the Tar Heels a quarterback who is equal parts experienced, talented and versatile. Which is why every team in need of a quick QB fix wants Bryant just as badly as North Carolina does.

Fortin, though, is an interesting case. It took him a quarter or so to find his footing, but he certainly ran the UNC offense well enough for the Tar Heels to win, slinging the ball around with a three-quarter, shot-put motion that was nevertheless effective – right until he was injured on a third-down scramble late in the second quarter, limping to the locker room and returning with his jersey on over his street clothes, staying out of the way on the sidelines the rest of the game. No update was immediately available on his status, from the school or from Fedora.

“I thought the kid came in and did some really good things,” Fedora said. “Probably a couple of throws he would like to have back. He made some good throws also. We dropped one for a touchdown, but there are a lot of plays in this game I could point out we didn’t make. I thought he did a good job. He was very poised.”

If only the rest of the North Carolina offense could say the same. Antonio Williams fumbled the ball on the game’s first snap, a holding call on Nick Polino wiped out a Carter touchdown run, Newsome dropped a certain touchdown pass that hit him in the chest and the hands before it sailed cruelly away, Elliott overthrew Ratliff-Williams in the end zone when Virginia Tech failed to notice his presence and Carter fumbled the win away late, the most damaging miscue of them all.

Throw in Freeman Jones’ two missed field goals (he also made four) and that’s 31 points. Shameful, on what was far and away the Tar Heels’ best defensive performance of the season, forcing two turnovers and limiting the Hokies to one big play and two long scoring drives.

Not much of that was Fortin’s fault, and it’s tough to judge him on less than a half of work, as promising as it was. Nor was it entirely the fault of Elliott, who was effective if unspectacular, throwing for 137 yards on 9-for-13 passing while taking care of the ball. But neither was able to break the game open the way Ryan Willis did on Virginia Tech’s final drive, running for three first downs on his own, including a 4th-and-9 conversion as the Hokies went 98 yards in almost six minutes after the Carter fumble.

“Give their quarterback some credit,” Fedora said, almost wistfully, of a player who started the season as Virginia Tech’s backup. “He made some plays. He found a way to make a play. That’s what I’m talking about.”

That’s what the Tar Heels lack at the position, leaving open the question as to who North Carolina’s best option is at quarterback this season. And next season. The answer to the former might have been on the field, albeit briefly, while the answer to the latter might have been in the stands. The Tar Heels better hope there’s some kind of answer out there somewhere.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock
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