photo by Smith Hardy
Just 11 touches into his collegiate career, North Carolina tailback Michael Carter is already drawing NFL comparisons.
It’s not hard to see why. In UNC’s 35-30 loss to California last Saturday, Carter rushed for 94 yards and two touchdowns — including a 47-yard scamper on his second carry — and his second score netted him a spot on weekend highlight reels, including the SportsCenter Top 10 Plays and ACC Must See Moments.
At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Carter’s speed and explosiveness were obvious from his first touch. His only blemish against Cal was a fumble on his fifth carry, which earned him a spot on the bench to start the second quarter. But he found the end zone in his first series back on the field.
“I thought he did an exceptional job for just handling the situation,” coach Larry Fedora said. “Now, there were plenty of things that he needs to do better. But for his first college game, we were pleased with where he's at now.”
He’s a freshman, sure, but this isn’t new for Carter. The Navarre, Fla., native broke the single-game school record with seven touchdowns as a senior. And on Saturday, he came 15 yards shy of tying Derrick Fenner’s record for most yards in a Carolina debut.
In 2011, a year before Fedora took the helm, another tailback from Florida turned 11 touches into two touchdowns in his UNC debut. That was Giovani Bernard, who rushed for a UNC freshman record 1,253 yards and added 362 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns in an All-ACC campaign.
Bernard, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, is listed at 5-foot-9 and just a few pounds heavier than Carter — who drew comparisons to the former Tar Heel great before he ever took the field. The freshman looked the part on Saturday, but he’s just getting started.
“I feel like I can do so much more,” Carter said.
Linebacker Andre Smith, another Florida native, said he’s seen highlights of Bernard and was quick to compare Carter to the UNC record-setter after Wednesday’s practice. Carter’s low center of gravity makes it hard to bring him down, Smith says, and the linebacker said Carter is the strongest player on the team, pound for pound.
But his most dangerous trait is his agility, which Smith likened to another NFL back: Darren Sproles, the 5-foot-6 scatback who set the NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011.
“Not the biggest guy, (but he) definitely is very quick and very fast,” Smith said. “He can find his way through holes in any type of way.”
Defensive end Malik Carney sees the comparison, too, saying Carter’s elusiveness is akin to Sproles’. Carney said the hardest thing about bringing Carter down is his ability to bounce in and out of running lanes.
“He can jump, cut, make you miss,” he said. “Where you think he’s right here, he’ll just pop outside of the lane. He’s real energetic and hoppy.”
That shiftiness is familiar to Cole Holcomb, who compared Carter to fellow Florida native Dalvin Cook — who was drafted No. 41 in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
Holcomb should know. Last season, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Florida State back scorched the Tar Heels for 246 total yards and three touchdowns, bouncing between lanes and slicing through the UNC defense. That vision propelled Cook to an NFL backfield, just as Carter’s vision helped him slip to the second level against the Golden Bears.
"He stays low,” Holcomb said of Carter, “and in a phone booth, he's hard to tackle."
The freshman’s physicality, though, is what impressed quarterback Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU. In Baton Rouge, Harris spent three seasons with Leonard Fournette — drafted No. 4 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in April — and two years with Derrius Guice, an early Heisman Trophy candidate this season.
Fournette (6-foot, 228 pounds) and Guice (5-foot-11, 218 pounds) are both bigger than Carter, but Harris said the way Carter processes information on the field reminds him of his former teammates. And Guice, in particular, runs with a similar physicality as Carter in Harris’ eyes.
It’s high praise for a running back with one game under his belt.
"They're both freaks,” Carter said. “I don't consider myself a freak. I just consider myself a pretty good player at this point, until I prove myself."
But that’s coming quickly, and so too are the expectations. This weekend, he’ll measure himself against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who brings No. 17 Louisville (1-0) to Chapel Hill for the ACC opener against the Tar Heels (0-1).
Carter said facing the Heisman winner is a chance for players with NFL aspirations to prove themselves and show what type of player they are. So exactly what type of player is Carter?
“Oh, I know the best one,” Carney said. “He’s Michael Carter.”