North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has done this sort of thing before, back in 2014, when he used one quarterback at the start of games and another on his team’s third series. Back then it was Marquise Williams, the starter, and Mitch Trubisky, the future second-overall selection in the NFL draft. And back then, it didn’t work all that well.
Eventually, after four games, UNC abandoned the rotation, went with Williams and used Trubisky only sparingly. At the time, nobody seemed to embrace that rotation. Neither Williams nor Trubisky praised the idea, and both said it hindered their ability to discover their rhythm. Even Fedora appeared to use it grudgingly, and only because he wasn’t particularly sure one player should start over the other.
Now history repeats itself. One game into a season that has quickly reached a critical juncture, after the Tar Heels’ 35-30 defeat against California on Saturday, UNC finds itself, in some ways, where it was three years ago: with a two-quarterback rotation that nobody really seems to favor. This time it includes Brandon Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU, and Chazz Surratt, the second-year freshman.
Harris transferred to UNC, undoubtedly, because he believed he’d be in position to start and lead an offense he found more desirable than the one he languished in for years in Baton Rouge, La. With one year of college eligibility remaining, Harris searched for his best chance to thrive in his final college season. He believed he found that at UNC.
What he has found, instead, is a quarterback competition that seemed unlikely back in the spring, when neither Surratt nor anyone else separated themselves as a favorite to win the starting position. Things began to change, though, during the first weeks of preseason practice, and Surratt pushed Harris enough that both players played a significant role in UNC’s opener.
Afterward, neither one exactly raved about splitting time. Harris said he knew five days before the first game that he would start. He said Fedora told him that Surratt would also play. Surratt, meanwhile, said Fedora told him he’d enter the game on the third series – just like Trubisky years before – and then playing time would be determined by performance.
Asked afterward if the arrangement affected his ability to develop a rhythm, Surratt said, “You could say that.”
“It’s not something that me and Brandon are both used to,” he said. “So it could.”
Harris stood nearby, answering similar questions.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been a part of it,” he said of his role in a two-man quarterback show.
Harris said later that he was “going to have to find a way” to succeed in the rotation.
“I don’t know how you do it but we’ve got to just find a way,” he said.
By the end of UNC’s surprising defeat on Saturday – the Tar Heels entered as a double-digit favorite – there was little doubt about which quarterback fared better. Harris played five series, only one in the second half, and completed seven of his 16 passes for 60 yards and two interceptions, including one that ended a promising drive toward the end of the first half.
Surratt played nine series, led UNC on all four of its touchdown drives, and completed 18 of his 28 attempts for 161 yards and one touchdown. Neither Harris nor Surratt often attempted a downfield pass, and both players averaged less than six yards per passing attempt (UNC’s defense surrendered 9.6 yards per attempt).
If Fedora was basing his long-term quarterback decision on one game, it might be an easy one. As he said on Monday, though, he is not basing his decision on one game, and he implied that the two-quarterback system would “probably” continue on Saturday against Louisville, whose powerful offense is led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Against Louisville, especially, maximizing offensive efficiency – and scoring points, to put it simply – will be of the utmost importance for the Tar Heels. Fedora said he was sympathetic to concerns that a quarterback rotation might negatively affect the flow of the offense, as it did at times on Saturday, and as it did three years ago before he settled on Williams.
“It is sometimes hard to do that,” Fedora said. “The way we practice, I mean both those guys are getting the same amount of reps and they’re both working with both groups all the time. Would you prefer it was one guy all the time with the ones and nobody got injured so you could have continuity all the time? Yeah you’d prefer that. But that’s just not what we have right now.”
Fedora’s decision isn’t as simple as the one-game sample size indicates. For one, Harris came to UNC to start, and if he doesn’t start Fedora must weigh the consequences, including the possibility that not giving Harris the starting position might make it more difficult to recruit another graduate transfer quarterback, should the need ever arise.
On the other hand, Surratt represents the future. If this is to be a rebuilding season – and the defeat against Cal indicated that it very well could be – then starting Surratt and allowing him to develop, through growing pains and all, could pay dividends in future seasons. In the spring, that didn’t seem to be an attractive option for Fedora, but it has since emerged as one.
And so the debate goes on. This isn’t what Fedora would prefer, given his ideal set of circumstances. It’s not what Harris or Surratt would prefer, either. And yet it is their reality, at least until Fedora has seen enough.
“Really, I’m looking for the guy that’s going to put us in a position to win,” he said. “And taking care of the football is still No. 1 with those two. You’ve got to take care of the football.”
Harris, who threw two interceptions against Cal, didn’t effectively do that during his debut. If that continues on Saturday against Louisville, Fedora’s decision could be clearer, and easier.