Best in the ACC?

Best in the ACC?

photos by Smith Hardy

Brandon Fritts didn’t look like a top tight end in 2016.

As a sophomore, Fritts entered the year with high expectations as a big target in the red zone. But an ankle injury in the first quarter against Georgia sidelined him for the following two games, and he missed even more time after reaggravating it against Pittsburgh. In Fritts’ absence, then-freshman Carl Tucker seized the top tight end spot with two third-down catches in that Georgia game, while Fritts’ health hampered his effectiveness throughout the year.

It led to a six-catch, 59-yard season through nine games, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence as a pass-catcher. Last season, Fritts had fewer yards than sixth-string receiver Jordan Cunningham and was tripled in receptions by Elijah Hood, a bruising running back who wasn’t necessarily known for his hands.

But this season’s a clean slate for Fritts, who is one of nine ACC players on the John Mackey Award watch list for 2017. Senior receiver Austin Proehl thinks he’s the top name on the list.

"I think he's the best tight end in the ACC,” Proehl said. “I do. And I think he's one of the best in the country."

Hold the praise for a moment, though. Fritts caught just one touchdown last season — against The Citadel, at that — and he had multiple catches just once, in a 5-yard effort at Duke. He had one reception for zero yards in the Sun Bowl against Stanford, and he’s never had more than three catches in a game in his career.

Proehl’s confidence is inspired, sure, but is it justified? Fritts lets out a hearty laugh.

“I definitely think I’ve got a lot of work to do as far as being the best,” the junior says. “But I think that’s coming out here every day and working.”

So far, he’s done that. With UNC’s receiving corps gutted and its running game unproven, Fritts knows he’ll be counted on in both areas. So this off-season, the 6-foot-4 junior bulked up to 250 pounds — five more than last year and 35 more than his freshman year.

Fritts said it’s been an adjustment getting used to his body, but it’s a change he knows will help him become a more complete tight end.

Senior receiver Austin Proehl (7) says junior Brandon Fritts (82) is the best tight end in the ACC.

Senior receiver Austin Proehl (7) says junior Brandon Fritts (82) is the best tight end in the ACC.

“People don't realize how hard that is to put on that weight and be able to run,” Proehl said. “And he's done it and he's excelled at it.”

Fritts is also healthy now, which is a marked change from most of the 2016 season. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, though.

The tight end said he woke up every day at 6:30 a.m. last season to strengthen his ankle, and Proehl said his longtime roommate spent hours pushing sleds, lifting weights and doing anything he could to build strength.

"The amount of work he puts in, people don't realize,” Proehl said. “I don't even think our coaches realize sometimes, and they might get mad at me for saying that."

Count head coach Larry Fedora among those who have noticed. Fedora said Fritts’ injury noticeably affected the way he played last season, but he said he’s been impressed with the new-look Fritts this offseason.

“He’s carrying the weight really well,” Fedora said. “He’s stronger. He’s healthy … He had a great summer and I think he’s prepared to really have a great year.”

Best in the country? Fritts admits he has a long way to go. But with a clean bill of health and a stronger build, he’ll likely prove himself as the best tight end on the roster and a primary option in the passing game.

For a depleted Tar Heel offense, it could pay dividends.