Luke DeCock

Davis looking for breakout year, as are Tar Heels

UNC's Quinshad Davis (14) scores a touchdown as Duke's Breon Borers (31) defends during their game November 19, 2014 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
UNC's Quinshad Davis (14) scores a touchdown as Duke's Breon Borers (31) defends during their game November 19, 2014 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.

The last time North Carolina headed south to play South Carolina, Quinshad Davis was coming off a 68-catch freshman season, on the brink of stardom with Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora talking about Davis catching 100 passes as a sophomore.

That 2013 season didn’t turn out as planned for Davis, starting with the road loss against his home state Gamecocks. And he didn’t have 100 catches combined over the next two seasons, the last concluding with a gruesome broken leg in North Carolina’s bowl loss to Rutgers.

As the Tar Heels prepare for Thursday’s opener against South Carolina in Charlotte – even closer to Davis’ hometown of Gaffney, S.C. – Davis begins his senior season still looking to get back to the level of productivity he had as a freshman despite his considerable improvement as a receiver.

“Smarter, bigger, stronger, faster – all of that,” Davis joked.

Davis in many ways embodies the unknowns surrounding North Carolina this season. Davis, like the Tar Heels collectively, is unquestionably talented. But will he be as productive as he is undoubtedly capable of being? Will they?

This is the great mystery of the Tar Heels. They have the talent to win 10 games, maybe even more, with Marquise Williams at quarterback and Davis and Ryan Switzer at receiver and a stable of highly recruited running backs and a more experienced offensive line and a completely retooled defense under new coordinator Gene Chizik.

But North Carolina hasn’t won more than eight games since 1997, which makes it tough to project the Tar Heels beyond that point.

Which brings us back to Davis, who has something to prove to NFL scouts after the broken leg and who still has the talent to record 100 catches – but may or may not get there.

As a freshman, he was quarterback Bryn Renner’s go-to bailout option. Renner felt comfortable throwing the ball vaguely in Davis’ direction, comfortable the lanky receiver would get it. Williams didn’t have that comfort level when he took over for the injured Renner during Davis’ sophomore season, and the emergence of not only Switzer as a pass receiver but Mack Hollins and Bug Howard last season made Davis less of a focus in the offense.

“I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do,” Davis said. “I’m not a selfish person. I know what I need to do, and when the ball comes to me, I catch it. That’s my job.”

But defenses will have to account for those three receivers now, and the Tar Heels have promised to run the ball more with T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood, both factors that should open space for Davis. Perhaps more important, Williams is now an experienced veteran who has developed over time what could be a similar confidence in Davis.

“From 1-10, I’d probably go 100,” Williams said. “That’s how comfortable I am with that guy. He’s going to run great routes for you. He’s going to catch the ball. When you’re under duress, you don’t know where you go, throw it to Quinshad. He’ll come down with the football.”

That bodes well for Davis’ progress toward the school career receiving records held by Hakeem Nicks. Davis is tied with Nicks in receiving touchdowns (21) and has 150 catches for 1,976 yards. He needs 32 catches and more than 800 yards to pass Nicks in those categories. Those are big numbers.

Davis is capable of posting big numbers like that, just as the Tar Heels are capable of breaking through the eight-win barrier. Both will have a better idea whether they will after Thursday night.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947