On third-and-short against Louisville on Sept. 9, the North Carolina offense ran a handoff to freshman Michael Carter. He got the ball from redshirt-freshman Chazz Surratt, but tried to cut back around the defenders.
Tackled. Fourth down, cue the punt. Carter made the same mistake against California the week before, and it ended in a fumble recovered by the Golden Bears. The Tar Heels couldn’t afford another missed opportunity.
After the loss to Louisville, offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic met with Carter and sophomore running back Jordon Brown. On a third-and-short, first-and-goal down, he said, don’t go for the big play – go for the first down. Get low, fight for those few yards. Keep the offense on the field.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“Third-and-short, you’ve got to kind of get dirty, get nasty, and I think that’s what’s helped,” Carter said.
Kapilovic saw an improvement almost immediately, especially with Brown. Against Old Dominion, Brown grew grittier – blocking tackles, fighting for yards, getting low on third-and-short. On an offense that has struggled to capitalize on opportunities, Brown and Carter have been a constant.
Surratt has lost three receiving targets to injury: senior Austin Proehl, senior Thomas Jackson and redshirt-freshman Rontavius Groves. The combination of injury and inexperience has left the Tar Heels lagging in efficiency. Kapilovic said he’s only using about 60 percent of the playbook so the team can work on play execution.
But amid the instability, the 5-10, 195-pound Brown has remained reliable. In UNC’s 33-7 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, Brown led the team with nine receptions for 57 yards – and rushed for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give UNC its only score of the game.
“He’s one of our playmakers,” Surratt said. “So we just try to give him the ball and space and let him go to work out there.”
Brown did the same thing against Cal on Sept. 2, making nine catches for 53 yards in the season-opening loss. Brown has always been a capable catcher – he played receiver for a while in high school. And when he came to UNC, Brown wanted to showcase that skill. But after the depletion of the wide receiving corps, his versatility is even more vital.
Because when Surratt comes under pressure, when the urgency of the down becomes overwhelming, he doesn’t have to try to force a big play. He can make the quick pass to Brown, and the offense will keep moving forward.
“It’s important that the quarterback trusts him to get him the ball, and I think Chazz feels that way with him,” Kapilovic said. “And that’s a huge positive.”
So far this season, Brown has totaled 125 receiving yards – the third most among healthy players. And he leads the team in receptions with 20.
As the Tar Heels prepare to take on Notre Dame at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Brown will once again be a source of stability on the offense. He has continued making strides, and with greater improvement comes a larger role – dependable running back and receiver. Whether it’s a key play or a quick run, he’ll keep the drive moving forward. Thanks to one conversation with Kapilovic.
“When we talked about it, I think he saw it and it clicked for him,” Kapilovic said. “And he’s just improved at it each week. He’s a very conscientious player. He cares a lot, and so he wants to do right and do well. It’s important to him.”