CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Amid all the changes at North Carolina under new coach Mack Brown lingers uncertainty at the most important position in a new offense.
At some point, the Tar Heels will have to figure out which of three inexperienced quarterbacks has earned enough trust to take over. And it's unclear how long it will take Brown's staff to sort through a depth chart with players offering far more potential than proven production.
The Tar Heels are coming out of spring drills with redshirt freshmen in Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder, both of whom saw limited action last season. There's also a true freshman in Sam Howell who provided a notable early recruiting win for Brown. For now, Brown has told them to not to worry about the depth chart while learning an "Air Raid" scheme that seeks to blend in power running concepts, too.
"This is a difficult offense for the quarterback," Brown said Saturday after the team's spring game. "It's simple for everybody else, but he's got a lot to do. So we told the quarterbacks: take the pressure off who's going to start, who's going to play, it doesn't matter. You'll have all summer to work on the offense and in the fall, we'll start figuring out who gets the ball in the end zone the easiest and the fastest."
They split the work Saturday. Howell got the first series and completed 10 of 16 passes for 131 yards, showing off a good arm on a perfect deep ball for a 42-yard touchdown throw to Roscoe Johnson in the end zone.
Fortin was next up but completed just 2 of 6 passes for 39 yards. Ruder was third, completing 5 of 7 passes for 143 yards — including a 77-yard catch-and-run by Carl Tucker on an apparent blown coverage — while directing the game's other two TD drives.
"They can all sling the thing," Tucker said. "It feels the same each time catching from each one. They all have strong arms, so it's easy to just get under the ball."
While quarterback question is obviously important for any team, it's been particularly glaring in Chapel Hill the past two seasons under former coach Larry Fedora. After Mitch Trubisky's rapid rise to become the No. 2 overall draft pick, the Tar Heels spent two seasons with injuries, inconsistency and simply poor play amid a revolving door at the QB position.
It's a big reason why Fedora's offense crashed following years of high-scoring flow, leading to his ouster and Brown's return for a second stint with the Tar Heels.
Fortin and Ruder both played last year as true freshmen but suffered injuries in auditions to take over the starting job.
Fortin played in four games and started two, completing 32 of 65 passes for 388 yards with one touchdown and one interception — with most of that production coming in the season finale against North Carolina State.
Ruder played only against Georgia Tech, completing 4 of 5 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown before being lost to an almost immediate injury.
Howell enrolled in January after flipping his commitment from Florida State to UNC after Brown's arrival.
Brown said the team spent four days in spring teaching the offense to the quarterbacks, then repeated those installation days to further drill everything in. He said he worried about the number of interceptions early in spring drills, but backed off after offensive coordinator Phil Longo said the staff needed to "let them learn what to do, and they'll pull it back in."
Now the Tar Heels must wait to see how much the QBs pick up from an offseason of study.
"I feel bad for Coach Longo," running back Javonte Williams said. "It's going to be hard to pick who to start because everybody's coming out and producing."
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