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August 21, 2012
Sammy: Receiving Opportunity
Injuries, a transition in offensive philosophy and the number of unproven players vying for snaps have made the receiving corps a topic for discussion during the first half of North Carolina's preseason camp.
The Tar Heels lost one of the program's best to graduation in Dwight Jones, and during the first week of training camp sophomore T.J. Thorpe suffered a foot injury that will sideline him for an unknown period of time. A few days later fellow sophomore receiver Reggie Wilkins went down, making a tough situation even tougher.
Those factors and others have left UNC with just three returning players who registered double-digit receptions last season.
The situation couldn't have occurred at a worse time for the Tar Heels, who are still transitioning to new head coach Larry Fedora's no-huddle spread offense. Fedora's version of the spread requires more bodies at receiver on the field and in reserve because of the demanding tempo.
But over the last couple of decades, North Carolina has survived similar shortcomings at receiver by having younger players step into the breach and make a name for themselves.
Take the 2009 season, for example.
Four players involved in UNC's passing game were selected in the NFL Draft - record-setting Hakeem Nicks went in the first to the New York Giants, tight end Richard Quinn went in the second to the Denver Broncos, Brandon Tate was taken in the third by the New England Patriots and Brooks Foster went in the fifth to the St. Louis Rams.
Zack Pianalto, Christian Wilson and Kenton Thornton were the only players coming back at the receiver or tight end spots who had caught passes in 2008. But they had just 15 catches total between them.
Pianalto would step up to become one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best pass-catching tight ends in '09. But the real game savers for the Tar Heels were Greg Little and Erik Highsmith.
Little finally settled in at receiver after two years of shuffling positions and responded with a 62-catch, 724-yard, five-touchdown effort.
Highsmith, then a true freshman, became a major shot-in-the-arm by racking up 37 catches for 425 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tar Heels will look to Highsmith again this season to stabilize their situation in the pass catching department. "Mookie,'' as he's known to teammates, enjoyed a strong 2011 season with 51 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. But that occurred with Jones drawing attention on the opposite side of the field.
Because of his speed and big-play ability, Thorpe had been projected as one of the receivers to complement Highsmith this season. Sophomore Sean Tapley, who saw most of his action on special teams last year, appears to have secured one of the receiver spots opposite Highsmith in Thorpe's absence.
An X-factor for the Tar Heels could be senior Jheranie Boyd.
Boyd has been spectacular at times during his UNC career, but woefully inconsistent. If he can somehow finally put it all together, it would be a tremendous boost.
Until that happens, however, the Tar Heels will need young receivers like Kedrick Davis, Quinshad Davis, Kendrick Singleton, Damien Washington, track team walk-on Roy Smith, lacrosse team walk-on Mark McNeill along with tight ends Eric Ebron, Jack Tabb and Sean Fitzpatrick to step up and contribute.
North Carolina has a strong receiver tradition dating back to the 1940s when Art Weiner led the entire nation in receptions with 52 during the 1949 season.
Stellar receivers like Bob Lacey, Charlie Carr and Jimmy Jerome followed in the tradition before UNC hit a stretch in the mid-70s and early 80s when the ground game became the Tar Heels dominant offensive tool.
But that gradually began to change with Mack Brown's arrival as head coach in 1988.
Of course, it took Brown a couple of seasons to find a quarterback capable of getting the ball to his receivers. By the 1992 season, he had guys like Corey Holliday, Marcus Wall and Bucky Brooks who began turning in big plays in the passing game.
Brown's last team at UNC in 1997 put up some of the best statistics across the board of any unit in history up to that point. Na Brown (55 catches, 610 yards, 4 TDs), L.C. Stevens (45-727-3), Jason Peace (32-418-2) and tight end Alge Crumpler (24-278-4) provided excellent targets for a team that finished 11-1.
What UNC team had the best collection of receiving talent?
The 2007 squad would probably win that debate hands down, if you consider professional service a factor.
The roster for the '07 team featured six players who are currently with NFL or other professional teams. They include the aforementioned Nicks (Giants), Tate (Cincinnati Bengals), Quinn (Washington Redskins), Foster (signed in July with CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders), Pianalto (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and then-running back Little, who is now the leading receiver for the Cleveland Browns.
In addition to Nicks, Tate, Little, Quinn and Pianalto, three other Tar Heels are also currently on NFL active rosters. They are Jesse Holley (New England Patriots), Wallace Wright (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and tight end Ryan Taylor (Green Bay Packers).
That's a pretty impressive group of pass-catching alumni, and Coach Fedora, as well as position coaches Gunter Brewer and Walt Bell, can only hope that this year's crop of UNC wideouts will carry on the tradition.