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hoto day in the summer of 2009 was an eye-opening experience for North Carolina's freshmen. The first-year players gathered to have their pictures taken for UNC promotional materials, and it was then that many of them learned their respective jersey numbers. Kevin Best, UNC's director of football communications, announced that highly touted wide receiver Jheranie Boyd would wear No. 87. "You've got Brandon Tate's number," a few players remarked, referring to the star receiver and kick returner who wore those digits from 2005-08.
Best then called out No. 88 for wide receiver Erik Highsmith. No. 88 most recently had belonged to Hakeem Nicks, who needed only three seasons to become UNC's all-time leading receiver before he was selected in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by the New York Giants. Highsmith was well aware of the man who preceded him.
"I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. They gave me this number?'" Highsmith said. "It's crazy how they gave me that number. They just kind of put it on me. They didn't ask what number we wanted or anything."
Highsmith felt too honored by the prospect of wearing Nicks' number to allow it to become a burden, and he quickly embraced No. 88. Soon after, he met Nicks for the first time and discovered something else. Nicks had left him some big shoes to fill, but the size of Nicks' receiver gloves was even more impressive.
"We shook hands, and his hand came midway up my forearm," Highsmith said, looking at his palm as if he still couldn't believe it. "It was just like, ‘Dang.' My hands aren't that big."
Even so, Highsmith has done No. 88 proud during his three seasons in Chapel Hill. He enters his senior year with 113 receptions for 1,499 yards and 10 touchdowns in his college career, ranking just outside UNC's all-time top 10 in all three categories. But on the heels of his most productive year yet—a junior season in which he caught 51 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns—Highsmith believes he is ready to break out in 2012.
Nicks (2008) and Dwight Jones (2011) are the only players in UNC history to amass at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Highsmith plans to turn that formation into a three-receiver set.
"I want to have 15 touchdowns and 1,500 yards," he said. "That's my personal goal. But I'm not going to do my personal goals over the team goals because the team comes first. I just really want to go out there and play and give it all I've got every play. Everything else will take care of itself. But when the ball is in my hands, I'm going to try to do something with it."
Highsmith should get plenty of opportunities to make plays. With former Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora taking over the reins at UNC, the Tar Heels will employ a fast-paced spread offense designed to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically beyond their breaking point. Quarterback Bryn Renner returns for his second year as the starter. He will be flanked by tailback Giovani Bernard, who rushed for 1,253 yards last season, and protected by a talented offensive line that returns four starters.
The questions facing UNC's offensive personnel surround the receiver position, where depth and experience aren't plentiful. Now that Jones has departed after totaling 85 receptions for 1,196 yards and 12 scores a year ago, Highsmith is the top returning target. He has made clear that he views himself as UNC's go-to guy, and no one around the Kenan Football Center has given him reason to believe anything different.
"I expect him to feel that way," UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "As a matter of fact, I've told him the same thing. Whether or not the ball gets pushed his way as often as he likes, I don't know. But I want him to feel as if he is, I want him to have that confidence level, and I want him to anticipate and expect the ball to come his way in crunch time. It could go anywhere, obviously, but he needs to practice and prepare and feel as if he's that guy. And a lot of times, he will be."
Highsmith earned that confidence from Anderson during the spring, when UNC's coaches got an opportunity to work with their new players on the practice field for the first time. Highsmith began the spring as an unknown quantity, just like everyone else, but he proved that he deserved a significant role. Coaches love to create game-type situations in practice to see which players will respond in a positive manner, and Highsmith distinguished himself time after time.
"I thought in any situation where he had all eyes looking on him, he was a guy who was always willing to step up and compete," Anderson said. "It seemed like he was a guy you could look for. I know we had a competitive situation during spring ball where Coach Fedora just said, ‘Call out some guys and put us in a fourth-down situation.' He stepped up and made a play with everybody kind of focused on him. It was a winner-or-loser type drill, and he stepped up and made a really competitive play.
"This is what I worked for my whole career. … I waited for my chance, and it's here. I'm going to make the most of it."
"It was one of those opportunities that a guy could have maybe shied away from, and he didn't. He stepped up and made a play. He had all the pressure of the whole offense on his back, and he did a really good job with it."
Highsmith, who stands 6-3 and 190 pounds, has risen to the occasion throughout his football career. He caught 90 passes for 1,543 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season at West Craven High, leading the state of North Carolina in receiving yards. Despite helping his team reach the state 3-A championship game, he failed to generate buzz on the recruiting trail. He was a two-star prospect, according to recruiting services.
Highsmith grew up in Vanceboro, about 25 miles from East Carolina, and he wanted to stay close to home and play for the Pirates. He attended multiple camps at ECU in an effort to impress the team's coaches, but they never offered him a scholarship. They chose a receiver named Mike Price from New Bern, just down the road from Vanceboro, instead. Highsmith had no hard feelings toward Price, but the competitor inside him told him that Price's scholarship should have been his.
"That," Highsmith said, "kind of made me mad."
Highsmith was disappointed, yet undaunted. His mother, Shanda Roundtree, was the one who got him started playing sports. And she did not raise the boy she called "Mookie"—an adaptation of the name of the main character, Mowgli, from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book—to be a quitter.
"I kind of started with baseball first, and she was the one out there in the yard with me in the early mornings throwing with me," Highsmith said. "My dad wasn't around, and she was the one out there playing catch with me and stuff. I just respect her to a whole other level. I give her presents for Father's Day and everything. She just motivates me to be the best I can be, tells me not to let anybody tell me I can't do something."
Highsmith pressed on without an offer from ECU, and he caught the attention of UNC's coaching staff with an impressive showing at a summer camp in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels soon offered him a scholarship, and he happily accepted. The lack of attention from the recruiting services and the snub from the school in his backyard ensured that the Tar Heels were getting a player with plenty of motivation to succeed.
"It fueled me a lot," Highsmith said. "I think I was just as talented as the highly-ranked receivers who were in my class. When we play teams that missed out on me, I'm not mad today because I didn't go there or anything. But the fact that they didn't recruit me, that kind of just ticks me off a little bit and makes me go a little harder. It's just a chip on my shoulder to try to embarrass them a little bit when we play them to let them know they missed out on a great player."
True to his intentions, Highsmith wasted little time getting revenge against the Pirates. UNC played ECU in the third game of Highsmith's freshman year, and Highsmith earned his first start in that contest. Highsmith also scored his first touchdown, finishing with six receptions for 113 yards in UNC's 31-17 victory at Kenan Stadium. There is an old adage that says, "If you can't beat them, join them." This was the opposite: "If you can't join them, beat them."
"It was really special," Highsmith said. "I can remember it right now. I was kind of timid a little bit because it was my first game starting. After the first couple of snaps, I just felt comfortable out there. It was like high school all over again. It was just amazing. I'll never forget it."
Highsmith has continued making memories at the expense of the Pirates. He caught one pass for 12 yards in UNC's 42-17 win over ECU in 2010, then produced three grabs for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Tar Heels' 35-20 win over the Pirates in Greenville last season. With the teams scheduled to meet this season in Chapel Hill on Sept. 22, Highsmith has a chance to finish his career 4-0 against the program that turned its back on him.
"That's the plan," he said. "It would mean a lot."
Highsmith said he is working harder than ever before in preparation for this season. He has taken it upon himself to be the first player in line for every drill, to answer every question in the meeting room and to impart advice to UNC's younger receivers about how to get open on various routes.
"He has showed the ability to be the most consistent and the most competitive in terms of one-on-one situations. He gives us our best chance to win those."
UNC's new offensive system also has required him to improve his physical conditioning. Fedora's rapid-snap approach is designed to tax the stamina of opposing defenses, but it will work only if the Tar Heels are in good enough shape to execute it. For Highsmith, that could mean sprinting 40 yards down the field on a go route, running back to the line of scrimmage after the play and then throwing a block for Bernard a few seconds later after the next snap.
"It requires a lot," he said. "The coaches now have gotten more out of us than any other coaching staff has. They have pushed us to the limit. I think we'll need that to run as many plays as we want during the season. It's a whole new intensity level out there.
"You feel it in your whole body. As soon as you catch the ball and get tackled, you come right back to the line and look to the sidelines for the next play. You've got to know where you're lined up, get the signal, get the play, let's go. Fast. You don't have 30 seconds to think."
Thanks to his grasp of the offense, Highsmith likely won't miss the comfort and security that a huddle can provide. His experience as a quarterback his first two years of high school gave him a better understanding of coverages and taught him the importance of knowing the entire offense, not just a single aspect of it. That knowledge came in handy during the spring, when he learned two positions and gained versatility that will allow Anderson to align him in different spots on game day.
Highsmith opened the spring as the Z receiver, a position that figures to execute a number of deep routes in UNC's offense, before switching over to the X. The X receiver in UNC's offense often lines up by himself on the short side of the field, where he can work against one-on-one coverage on intermediate routes. Known for his reliable hands and willingness to fight for the ball, Highsmith is an ideal fit for that position.
"He's a good route runner, he's competitive, and he has a tendency to win one-on-one battles," Anderson said. "Of all the spots we have, that's a position that you have a tendency to get some single coverage. When you do, you've got to be able to win those battles for us to be successful. He has showed the ability to be the most consistent and the most competitive in terms of one-on-one situations. He gives us our best chance to win those."
The importance of Highsmith's role in the offense is what has him so excited about 2012. Sure, he wants to post big numbers to help put himself in position to support his family with a career in the NFL. But his craving is for more than gaudy individual statistics. He relishes the opportunity to be the guy his teammates count on for big plays.
Highsmith watched Jones excel in that role during the last two seasons. He saw Greg Little do it the year before that. He has the opportunity this year to be the tone-setter, the difference maker, the chain-mover. He has the opportunity to make the next No. 88 in UNC history feel honored to wear his number.
"This is what I worked for my whole career," he said. "I wish I could have been the No. 1 guy, the go-to guy, in my previous years, but it wasn't my time yet. I respect those guys. Greg and Dwight were great talents, and I still look up to them. Now it's just my time. I waited for my chance, and it's here. I'm going to make the most of it."