T.J. Yates’ interception was simply a poorly thrown ball, as was Braden Hanson’s. Beyond those two errant passes, however, the bigger red flag were the number of dropped passes by North Carolina receivers – five or six, depending on how you count them.
"In talking to some of the kids after the game, they were nervous,” head coach Butch Davis said. “There's no getting around it. Josh Adams said, 'Coach, I gotta be honest with you, I was nervous. I've never played in front of that many people and that much noise.'
Even though there were a couple of drops by the freshman Adams (though one was arguably as much a poor throw as a drop), more experienced players like Greg Little, Shaun Draughn, Johnny White and Bobby Rome all had dropped balls.
It wasn’t perhaps so much the youth of the players, but rather the new go-to guys in the offense being overly eager to impress.
“Guys are wanting to get the ball in their hands and want to make a move just a little bit too early,” Little explained. “Just some (more) focus and concentration, that’s pretty much what it is. Guys were just eager to make a play and then kind of forgetting about securing the catch first.”
Almost to a man, the Tar Heels were surprised by the number of drops.
Yates: “You don’t expect anything like that, it is definitely something we’re going to have to work on. We’re usually not like that in practice. So it was definitely a surprise.”
White: “From practice and scrimmage I think we are capable of a lot bigger things. Hopefully during the season we’ll get a lot better. As the season goes on I think we’ll eliminate the drops.”
Draughn: “It is definitely not (typical). I mean, I’m not going to say it was a lack of focus, but you just got to catch the ball, that’s what it all boils down to. In practice we catch them left and right.”
Davis did not seem to be as stunned as the players and is optimistic about improvement. “It didn’t come as a total surprise, playing as many young wide receivers,” Davis said. “I think we¹ll continue to improve over the course of the next couple of weeks.
While there is no sound of desperation in the voices of the players or their head coach, there’s definitely some work to be done in the passing game. The Tar Heels finally seem to have the kind of running game they’ve coveted for years, however it’s a worry that they won’t have the kind of passing game that can prevent defenses from loading the box and forcing them to throw the ball.
“As those guys gain some poise and get in the game, that stuff will certainly go away,” Davis reasoned. “Those kids have got great hands. We¹ve just got to emphasize the passing game and it will continue to grow to balance out the running attack.”
Little added, “We have some young guys on our team, but we’re still going to hold ourselves to a high standard. I’m going to push myself and my fellow receivers to where we are at a point where we’re not dropping anything and we’re going to go even harder and spend time after practice and before practice where we catch it and get some balls in with the quarterbacks.”
It is not as though there weren’t bright spots. Yates was sacked only once. White scored his first career touchdown on a pass reception. Little made a phenomenal run after catch, hauling in a pass at the 12-yard line and breaking three arm tackles on his way to the end zone. Yates completed a nice play action pass downfield to Zack Pianalto for 25 yards. Adams made a great 18-yard catch that may have helped him build some confidence for next week – and he was open on a deep pass that Yates simply overthrew. And the twist of bringing in A.J. Blue in the Wildcat formation adds an extra dimension to the offense.
Finally, if the Tar Heels continue to have success in the running game, opponents will be forced to concede something in the passing game, or at a minimum be more vulnerable to play action passing.