photos by Smith Hardy
Apparently two quarterbacks is too many for Larry Fedora.
On Saturday, the North Carolina football coach was up to his old tricks in UNC’s 35-30 loss to California in the season opener. After an offseason plagued with controversy behind center, Fedora did what many expected him to: start graduate transfer Brandon Harris for the opening drive and bring in redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt a few series into the game.
Let the “QB carousel” begin.
Two drives for Harris. Three for Surratt. One for Harris, one for Surratt, one for Harris, two for Surratt. It’s enough to make your head spin.
“It’s kind of weird,” said Surratt, who was making his collegiate debut. “I’ve never experienced that situation before.”
Of course he hasn’t. Neither has Brandon Harris, who started two games last season for LSU before getting benched for the rest of the year. That’s how it works in college football: a coach picks a starting quarterback and lets him win or lose the job. But that’s not good enough for Fedora.
By all accounts, neither quarterback seized the job during training camp, and Fedora made it clear he wouldn’t name a starter until he saw separation. So early in the week, he told his quarterbacks individually that Harris would start the first two drives and Surratt would come in on the third possession — and he wasn’t sure if he’d end up settling on one, after all.
“The thing that I was looking for was to see how poised they were throughout the game,” Fedora said. “When a mistake was made, how did they recover from it?”
Neither got the chance to show poise, though, even though they both desperately needed it. Surratt said the game looked so fast to him when he watched from the sidelines in 2016, so game reps were key for him to get his rhythm. Same for Harris, who was adjusting to a new offense, new teammates and a new style of play in a new conference.
They both made mistakes, just as Fedora expected them to. Surratt finished 18-for-28 for 161 yards and a touchdown, but he missed some reads and was too quick to flee the pocket at times. Harris’ accuracy woes were on full display with two interceptions — the first right before halftime and the second coming late in the third quarter to earn him an indefinite spot on the bench. That opened the door for Surratt to start the final quarter, where the freshman threw for over half of his total yardage.
But neither quarterback was really afforded the chance to earn their playing time, thanks to what Fedora called an “orchestrated” approach.
“You can talk to any quarterback and guys like to get into a rhythm,” said Harris, who finished 7-for-16 with 60 yards and those two interceptions. “I have never been a part of that. You have to try and keep yourself into the game.”
UNC fans have experienced this, of course. In 2014, Fedora rotated incumbent starter Marquise Williams and then-redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky in the team’s season-opening win over Liberty. He eventually handed the reins to Williams as the Tar Heels stumbled to a 6-7 record. Williams captained an 11-3 campaign in 2015, but Fedora still tossed Trubisky behind center in seemingly random intervals throughout the year, much to the chagrin of everybody involved.
In hindsight, those reps gave Trubisky invaluable experience for the following season, when the job was ultimately his. But it visibly rattled Williams to get the hook as an entrenched starter, and Trubisky admitted before the 2016 season that he’d have rather had clarity in his role than be at the mercy of Fedora’s rotations.
It seems history is repeating itself this year, too.
“It’s right before you go out there, he tells you who is in,” Harris said. “You just have to find a way to make it work.”
They shouldn’t have to. By refusing to settle on one guy, Fedora is bringing out the worst in each of his quarterbacks, neither of whom can establish the rhythm needed to reach the starting-caliber level that they're both capable of.
The inconsistency bleeds into the rest of the offense, too. Receiver Thomas Jackson said the spin on the ball differs from the right-handed Harris and the left-handed Surratt, which can throw off the timing between passer and receiver. The constant switch also led to more drops and misread routes than should ever be expected from a Fedora-led offense.
But maybe this is exactly what we should expect. Once again, Fedora hasn’t communicated what roles he expects to either of his quarterbacks, and UNC fans are left wondering whether simply playing any of the team’s four scholarship quarterbacks for a full 60 minutes could have remedied a mostly anemic passing attack.
Instead, the constant rotation hinders either quarterback from learning from their mistakes — and it’s clear Fedora hasn’t learned from his mistakes, either.