Fanbases have short memories.
Sports fans are always on to the next game, the next season and the next recruit. Seldom is there time to digest all of the news surrounding a college football program. Thus, roster changes for college football teams can be easy to miss, especially when FBS programs are allowed 85 scholarships on its roster at any given time. That’s 85 different football players and each year, the roster is a little bit or a lot different.
Given all that change, it’s easy to forget about some of the what-ifs for a football program - what if this player had not transferred or not declared for the NFL Draft or not gotten injured? Of course, not all of these what-ifs are created equal – it is extremely unfortunate that anyone would get injured and have to quit playing football. And, players transfer or declare for the NFL Draft for a variety of reasons. However, for the purposes of this article, we will treat all departures the same and offer a UNC football lineup made up of players who could have been on the field this weekend against Georgia Tech. Interestingly enough, the what-if roster is arguably more talented in spots than the current team, with a few key exceptions. Let’s jump into this exercise with a discussion about quarterback...
What-if QB: Cade Fortin
Fortin elected to enter the NCAA transfer portal after Sam Howell was named the starter at UNC back in August. Brown looked like a genius for starting Howell after the first two games when the true freshman led UNC on game-winning drives, made big-time throws and helped UNC to a 2-0 record. But the youngster has come back down to earth, even getting benched for a short time against Wake Forest in Week 3.
Fortin (ranked 675 in the Class of 2018 by 247Sports Composite) was not as highly ranked as Howell (93 in 2019) as a recruit, but Fortin showed flashes of competence in his limited time on the field last season. And, he would have benefitted from the same talented group of skill position players that helped Howell out so far this season. It’s impossible to know whether Fortin would have done better or worse so far this season, of course. But it’s a fun what-if to think about how different the 2019 season could have been with Fortin starting.
Another option here would have been allowing Nathan Elliott, last year’s starting QB, to play out another season in Chapel Hill. But he moved on to a graduate assistant position at Arkansas State. Success in coaching awaits Elliott, who always handled himself with class while playing for UNC.
What-if RB: Zamir White and Jordon Brown
Zamir White was the number one player in the state of North Carolina in 2018 and a Top-10 player in the country, per the 247 Composite. He ended up going to Georgia, a good choice for a running back to make. There, he’s run for 141 yards and two touchdowns so far this season but is mostly still stuck in the back of a logjam in the running back room. The Bulldogs have D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrian to eat up a majority of the carries.
If White had picked UNC over Georgia, he instantly would have become the biggest recruiting win of the decade for the Tar Heel football program. Once on campus, he would have had every opportunity to take over the starting running back job for the next three or four seasons. But, White is developing at Georgia and his time in Carolina blue wasn’t meant to be.
The second player in this backfield is a bit more of a realistic option. Brown transferred to Kansas State over the summer after spending his first few years in Chapel Hill as a part of a crowded running backs room. He competed with Elijah Hood and TJ Logan for carries, then was challenged by Michael Carter and Antonio Williams for more touches after that. Javonte Williams also emerged as an option for the Tar Heels at running back and perhaps is the best option the Tar Heels have at that position going forward. All that depth perhaps factored into Brown’s decision to transfer away from the Tar Heel program before the season began.
With the Wildcats, Brown has rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns through the team’s first four games. James Gilbert is the team’s leading back, though. Kansas State has jumped out to a 3-1 record and Brown figures to play an important role with the team as the season goes along.
What-if WRs: Jordyn Adams and Anthony Ratliff-Williams
Here’s where the what-ifs get interesting.
Adams was an elite recruit coming out of high school. He played at nearby Green Hope High School and had a connection to the Tar Heel coaching staff - his father, Deke Adams, coached defensive line for the Tar Heels during Jordyn’s recruitment. Adams committed to UNC over Clemson and others but ultimately decided to pursue a professional baseball career.
I’m not sure about this, but I believe Adams could theoretically still return to college football and suit up for the Tar Heels. Brandon Weeden, a quarterback, is a prominent example of this unique route to playing on Saturdays in a college uniform. But, Adams is having a successful run at the whole baseball thing – he hit .257, eight homers and 36 RBIs across three different teams in three different leagues for the Angels organization this season.
As a what-if, though, this is a compelling option for the Tar Heels. Mack Brown would love to have Adams as an option at wide receiver. If he had never elected to play professional baseball and matriculate at UNC instead, I suspect Adams would have been UNC’s No. 1 option at wide receiver.
Adams has come back a couple times for Carolina football games. I have no inside information on this, but just looking at how Adams acted on the sidelines of games last season, perhaps a small part of Adam wishes that he was out there playing college football. But for now, he’s a fun starter on this what-if team.
The other option for this what-if duo is last year’s No. 1 wide receiver – Anthony Ratliff-Williams. ARW declared early for the NFL Draft, was not invited to the NFL combine, was not drafted and then signed with the Titans as a free agent. The Titans cut him and there hasn’t been much news about him since. Every student-athletes’ situation is unique, so I do not knock ARW’s decision to leave UNC early. And I wish him the best as he attempts to make a career for himself in professional football. But, he probably would have thrived working with a quarterback like Sam Howell. Ratliff-Williams came to UNC as a quarterback, then did most of his work at wide receiver during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when UNC struggled to find consistently good quarterback play. With Sam Howell slinging the ball, ARW would have gotten his fair share of targets on the outside. He also would have benefitted from another offseason of practice to cut down on the drops that plagued him throughout his college career. But, for the purposes of this article, he makes a great addition to the what-if team.
What-if offensive line: William Sweet, Jonah Melton, Jay Jay McCargo, Tommy Hatton, Mason Veal
This is where the exercise breaks down somewhat - it is unfair to Melton, McCargo and Hatton to include them on this roster because all three had their careers end early due to medical hardship. That is extremely unfortunate and hard on those kids. Hatton, in particular, has been vocal about his struggles with head injuries and concussions. Andrew Carter of the N&O wrote a nice profile about him that sheds some light on his struggles post-football.
But, in an alternate reality where all three of Melton, McCargo and Hatton are happy, healthy and playing football, this is what the line could have looked like this season for UNC. William Sweet is, like ARW, an interesting case. He also departed UNC a season early and caught on with camp in Arizona for the Cardinals. But, there hasn’t been much news about him since. UNC would have enjoyed his steady presence on the left side of the offensive line. But, Charlie Heck has also done a great job there so far this season. Veal, a reserve on the 2018 team, was added to fill out the lineup.
In summation, here’s the what-if North Carolina Tar Heel offense:
QB: Cade Fortin (Nathan Elliott)
RB: Zamir White (Jordon Brown)
WR: Jordyn Adams, Anthony Ratliff-Williams
OT: William Sweet, Mason Veal
OG: Jonah Melton, Tommy Hatton
C: Jay Jay McCargo
What do you think?
Header photo by Smith Hardy