Column: Has Brandon Harris earned a chance to start?

Column: Has Brandon Harris earned a chance to start?

Photos by Smith Hardy

For a moment, it looked like North Carolina’s quarterback controversy was over.

Through two quarters of UNC’s 47-35 loss to No. 17 Louisville on Saturday, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt settled into his first start, completing 12-of-14 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Graduate transfer Brandon Harris, who began the season as the starter, paced the sidelines unsure if he’d ever see the field again.

But come halftime, coach Larry Fedora made the switch to Harris, who commanded the Tar Heel offense with a confidence that was missing in UNC’s season-opening loss to Cal. The senior finished 17-for-23 for 216 yards and a touchdown, nearly leading North Carolina to a comeback victory over the Cardinals.

Did Harris earn his starting job back? Not to Fedora, who said both quarterbacks will again split reps this week before traveling to Old Dominion. But Harris hasn’t lost it, either.

“It’ll be the same as it’s been,” Fedora said Monday. “We’re not changing that. Both guys are getting better.”

Surratt said he got most of the reps leading up to the Louisville loss, and he said Fedora told him Thursday that he’d take the opening snap. Harris said he wasn’t told anything.

Sure enough, it was Surratt who guided the Tar Heels in the first half, throwing two touchdowns to just two incompletions as he tried to outduel reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Fedora admitted after the game that the plan was to start Surratt and “play it by ear,” but he didn’t anticipate bringing Harris into the game.

That changed on Surratt’s first rushing attempt, when the redshirt freshman said a hit to his back caused pain in his right leg. The pain progressed, and during Louisville’s final first-half drive, Harris was warming up on the sidelines.

When the second half rolled around, Surratt was on an exercise bike and Harris was in the huddle.

“We were going to give him a chance,” Fedora said of Harris, “and he came out and did a really nice job.”

With a shot at redemption, Harris played his best football in two years. His first pass, though incomplete, was a perfect shot downfield to Anthony Ratliff-Williams. His first touchdown, a 22-yarder to Thomas Jackson, gave UNC a 28-27 lead heading into the final quarter – when Harris showed why he’s a worthy starting candidate.

On the first drive of the fourth quarter, Harris completed two beautiful sideline throws to Austin Proehl, despite getting pummeled as he released the second one. He dropped two more dimes to Proehl, for 25 and 27 yards, on the next possession, which came one Brandon Fritts goal-line fumble away from bringing UNC within a touchdown late in the game.

Harris’ arm strength was on display, and his comfort was tangible. Fedora said Harris’ accuracy  —the quarterback’s biggest concern before the season— was aided by better decision-making a week after the senior threw two costly interceptions against Cal. To Harris, the biggest change was continuity.

The senior said he stayed after practice last week to work on developing chemistry with receivers such as Proehl and roommate Thomas Jackson, who said Harris looked more relaxed throughout the week. It showed on Saturday, when he spun 157 yards on 11-of-15 attempts and finished the game with zero turnovers.

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“I don't know these players as well as you guys think I do . . . ” he said. “We can practice all day, but this you get out here and do it in a game, it's not the same.”

He reiterated that point after practice last week and multiple times after Saturday’s loss, and you can see it on the field. In the season opener, Harris was overthrowing wide-open receivers and aiming low when throwing into coverage, leading to uncharacteristic drops from normally sure-handed players. But in the second game, with a few exceptions, he was hitting his teammates in stride and anticipating routes with ease.

Harris looked like a completely different quarterback than the one who started the season. In some ways, that’s true: he’s the same starting-caliber arm who earned the nod in Week 1, but now he’s got the familiarity with the offense to put his skills to use. The results Saturday were as much an endorsement of Harris’ talent as they were of allowing a quarterback to develop a rhythm without fear of arbitrary rotation.

With a full half each under their belt, both Harris and Surratt looked comfortable in the offense and showed progress from their mistakes. Fedora’s endless quarterback carousel has been a product of two signal-callers who couldn’t separate themselves from the other. Now, after UNC’s two quarterbacks combined for 384 yards and three touchdowns, North Carolina has two starters in the wings.

Those in Kenan Stadium on Saturday had mixed emotions when Harris found success in the second half, if only because it meant the quarterback competition raged on. And fans weren’t particularly receptive to the postgame possibility of Harris reclaiming the starting job.

If Fedora’s looking to the future after an 0-2 start – an unlikely proposition – it makes sense to stick with Surratt this week against Old Dominion. After all, game reps are invaluable to an underclassmen; just look at Mitch Trubisky’s progression from backup to No. 2 overall pick.

But if Surratt’s injury nags, or Fedora wants veteran stability in his team’s first road game, Harris looks like the competent starter the Tar Heels hoped they were getting this summer. And if he plays like he did in Saturday’s fourth quarter, he could put the quarterback competition to rest.

@CJacksonCowart