Mack Hollins walked onto the football team at North Carolina in 2012, not far removed from his high school years when college coaches thought him too small, or too flawed, to offer him a chance to play major college football.
Hollins during the past three years became one of the best receivers in school history, but he has played his final college game. His season and college career are over, UNC announced on Monday, after he suffered a broken collarbone during the Tar Heels’ victory at Miami on Saturday.
“We’re going to miss him as being a starter on all four (special teams),” Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said on Monday. “We’ll miss what he brings to us on offense. But probably more than anything, his leadership.”
Hollins’ absence affects UNC in several ways. For one, he was the team’s most valuable special teams player, one who contributed on all of the special teams. He was also the team’s best, most proven big-play receiver, one who had an uncanny knack for making the spectacular catch.
Those sort of catches became routine for Hollins, who last year led the nation with an average of 24.8 yards per reception. Through UNC’s first seven games this season, he averaged 19.3 yards per catch, and four of his 16 receptions ended in the end zone.
Hollins, who underwent surgery on Sunday repair his right clavicle, finishes his time at UNC with 81 receptions for 1,667 yards and 20 touchdowns. The 20 touchdown catches rank third in school history, behind Quinshad Davis (25) and Hakeem Nicks (21).
Beyond the numbers and the highlights, Hollins has made contributions with his brash leadership style. He is known among his teammates for his outspokenness, a confidence that borders on cockiness.
After the Tar Heels lost against Georgia to start the season, Hollins walked off the field telling his teammates they’d win their next 14 games. The implication then was that UNC wouldn’t lose again this season, and would go on to win the national championship.
Hollins exuded that kind of optimism. It fit him well, given his journey from overlooked walk-on to valued special teams contributor to integral part of an offense in which he thrived.
“Mack the person is a guy that’s outspoken and really cares about his team,” Fedora said. “He’s always pulling for the little guy. I mean, always. Him being a former walk-on and proving himself – he believes that everybody ought to have to prove themselves.”
That’s how Hollins had to do it, after all. Now the Tar Heels will have to find a way to fill his void.
The challenge will be especially difficult on special teams. After Hollins walked onto the team four years ago, he first impressed the coaching staff with his play there. Hollins has been UNC’s special teams captain in each of the past three seasons.
Fedora said on Monday that UNC couldn’t fill Hollins’ special teams void with a single player. It will be a group effort, which is likely to be the approach on offense, as well.
Jordan Cunningham, a sophomore receiver who transferred to UNC from Vanderbilt, is now in line to be more involved in the offense. Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a redshirt freshman, will likely receive more opportunities, as well.
The Tar Heels, though, don’t appear to have another player quite like Hollins – one who could either outrun opposing defensive backs or, if covered, outwork them to make an improbable catch. Then again, before Hollins emerged, they didn’t know they had a player like Hollins, either.
His emergence three years ago created one of UNC’s best football stories in recent years. All of a sudden, a little-known former walk-on turned special teams standout was outracing opposing defenses for 50-yard touchdown catches.
“We’re going to miss him a lot,” Mitch Trubisky, the Tar Heels quarterback, said on Monday. “A great player, a great teammate. A great receiver, a great special teams guy. Spectacular leader. … It’s going to be hard to replace No. 13.”