Mack Hollins’ brief suspension creates challenges for UNC

Mack Hollins, who is UNC’s most proven deep receiving threat, will sit out the first half of the Tar Heels’ game against Georgia on Saturday.
Mack Hollins, who is UNC’s most proven deep receiving threat, will sit out the first half of the Tar Heels’ game against Georgia on Saturday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Mack Hollins, the North Carolina wide receiver, is a bit of a “weird guy,” his teammate Austin Proehl said earlier this week, and so it’s anyone’s guess how Hollins might occupy his time during the first half of the Tar Heels’ game on Saturday against Georgia.

Hollins won’t be playing then. Because of a targeting penalty he committed during UNC’s loss against Baylor in a bowl game last December, NCAA rules mandate that Hollins must serve a suspension for one half. He will serve his time during the first two quarters on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.

And so while the Tar Heels begin one of their most important season-openers in school history, Hollins, their most potent deep receiving threat, will be back in the locker room, likely alone. Proehl, another UNC receiver, wondered how Hollins might spend his time.

“I’m sure it’ll be tough,” said Proehl, a junior who on Saturday will likely play a more significant role in Hollins’ absence. “Mack’s the type of guy, he’ll sit in there and watch a movie or something. … He’ll just sit in there and watch a movie.

“I guarantee he probably won’t even watch us on TV.”

Hollins’ first-half suspension hurts the Tar Heels in two ways. For one, UNC during those two quarters will be without its most proven and effective down-field receiver.

Hollins caught 30 passes a season ago – not a large number, necessarily – but he gained 745 yards on those 30 receptions. His average of 24.8 yards per catch led the nation, and Hollins could become an even more prolific receiver with Mitch Trubisky starting at quarterback.

UNC will undoubtedly miss Hollins on offense early on Saturday. More than that, though, the Tar Heels will most miss Hollins’ contributions on special teams, head coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week.

Hollins, a senior, has been UNC’s special teams captain for the past three years. He plays on all of the special teams, and often plays an instrumental role in the success of them – particularly, say, when Ryan Switzer returns a punt for a touchdown.

“He’s usually the one that’s ushering him into the end zone, you know?” Fedora said. “Because no matter what (Hollins) does, I mean, he is 100 miles per hour all the way the other way to be there when (Switzer) is in the end zone.”

A former walk-on, Hollins first impressed Fedora and the coaching staff through his play on special teams. That’s how Hollins began to earn the coaches’ respect and, eventually, the opportunity to contribute as a receiver.

Throughout the preseason, the Tar Heels have prepared to fill that void during the first half against Georgia. They won’t have their best option in the deep passing game. And they won’t have their best, most reliable special teams player – one whose example his teammates try to follow.

“He’s the guy that’s been out there the most,” Fedora said. “He’s the guy that understands the effort, and the intensity, that it takes on each and every snap. Our motto is one play and out. I mean, you’re out here for one play (on special teams), and then you’re off the field.”

Fedora and his players have remained coy about how they plan to fill Hollins’ void in the first half on Saturday. On special teams, Fedora said several players could occupy Hollins’ spot on the four units where Hollins began to make his name three years ago.

The replacement options are fewer at receiver, though Proehl, who caught 27 passes during his first two seasons, figures to play a more prominent role. The 5-foot-10 Proehl has the build of a typical slot receiver, but he has often worked on the outside throughout the preseason.

In fact, Fedora said, the entire receiving corps has rotated positions throughout the preseason. The idea is for each receiver to know how to play inside, at the slot position, and how to play outside, closer to the sideline.

“They’ve really learned the offense a lot better,” Trubisky said of his receivers, “and they know the other receiver’s routes as well. So you can plug pretty much any guy into any spot and they’ll be able to run that route and know what they’re doing in the offense.”

What Hollins will be doing in the first half while his teammates are out on the field, meanwhile, is another story. No one knows.

Hollins, as Proehl said, is different. He has a pair of pet snakes, one of them a python, and Proehl said, joking, that maybe Hollins would take them along for some locker room company during the first half on Saturday.

“Who knows what he’ll be doing in there,” Proehl said. “I wish we could have a camera on him, to be honest with you, just so we could see what he’s doing. But no – he’ll be fine. I’m sure he’ll be in there drinking a Coke or something, getting ready to play.”