Going into the 2017 season, after losing so many talented performers off last season’s team, everyone knew that this was going to be a rebuilding year for the North Carolina football program. But no one expected rebuilding to mean 3-9.
When the Tar Heels lost 33-7 to Georgia Tech in week five to fall to 1-4 — with injury upon injury piling up — it was clear that 2017 was going to be a lost season. While head coach Larry Fedora will now look towards building for next fall, let’s hand out some awards to the battered and bruised Tar Heels.
Offensive MVP: Anthony Ratliff-Williams, WR
The sophomore from Matthews, North Carolina, was the most dangerous offensive weapon and he became a bigger threat as the season wore on. On the year, Ratliff-Williams caught 35 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns. But 15 of those receptions, along with 294 of the yards and three of the scores, came in the final three games. He also returned two kicks for touchdowns and threw two TD passes. His return will give head coach Larry Fedora a key piece for his 2018 offensive puzzle.
Defensive MVP: M.J. Stewart, CB
In a year of turmoil, Stewart (above, right) was a solid presence on the back end. He broke up 12 passes, which was second on the team to K.J. Sails and third in the ACC, and also had 45 tackles along with two sacks. As bad as things got for UNC, the pass defense was not awful and Stewart was a big reason why things held together in the secondary despite the injury problems.
Best Freshman: Michael Carter, RB
It was an up-and-down season for the redshirt freshman. He ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against California, 157 yards and two more scores versus Virginia, and 103 yards against FCS opponent Western Carolina. But there were also seven games where he rushed for fewer than 30 yards. However, at season’s end he averaged 5.8 yards a carry and reached the end zone nine times.
Best Play of the Season: Ratliff-Williams' Catch at Pittsburgh
Up 7-3 halfway through the first quarter, Tar Heels quarterback Nathan Elliott threw a pass downfield to Ratliff-Williams. With Pitt defensive back Jordan Whitehead draped all over him, the UNC receiver tapped the ball with his left hand then grabbed it with his right paw for an amazing 40-yard reception.
Best Performance by a Player in 2017: Ratliff-Williams vs. Pittsburgh
But that was far from Ratliff-Williams’s only play of the night. He took the opening kick all the way back, had a 35-yard touchdown pass, and caught the winning score in the fourth quarter. In total, the wide receiver accounted for 230 total yards and was responsible for three touchdowns in the Heels’ only ACC win.
Best Game (Team Performance): Win Over Pittsburgh
Not only was it UNC’s only ACC win of the year, it also was their only victory over a Power 5 opponent. In a wildly entertaining Thursday night contest, North Carolina went on the road and beat the Panthers for the fifth straight time.
Defining Moment: Fourth Quarter Against Duke
At 1-2 in the ACC, all was not yet lost. Up 20-17 entering the fourth quarter, North Carolina was getting the ball back with a chance to make it a two-score lead. But in the next two series, UNC gained just six total yards. After the Blue Devils scored to take the lead, the Heels drove into Duke territory. But a Chazz Surratt pass was intercepted and returned for a clinching Duke score. A woeful offense filled with turnovers killed North Carolina in that fourth quarter and for the entire season.
Biggest Surprise: Dazz Newsome, WR
The freshman from Hampton, Virginia, came in as a cornerback and was shifted to offense. But he didn’t need a whole lot of time to adjust. Newsome was injured early in the season, but unlike many other Tar Heels, he was able to get back on the field and make an impact with 227 receiving yards and 52 on the ground.
Biggest Disappointment: The Injuries
They began before the season even started and they never stopped. The offensive line was in constant flux as one member after another was hobbled in some way. The loss of linebacker Andre Smith in the second game was crushing. And it went on and on. By the end of the season, nearly two dozen Tar Heels had suffered season-ending injuries. When added to the personnel losses suffered after the 2016 season, it equals a 3-9 mess of a season.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: M.J. Stewart, CB
Andre Smith will return next fall and his linebacker partner, Cole Holcomb, should be fully healed by that time as well. But the back end of the defense will take a hit with the loss of safety Donnie Miles and Stewart. Stewart’s departure will be more impactful and not just because Miles missed much of this season with his own injury. Stewart was a good cover corner that was not afraid to come up and hit.
Players to Watch in 2018: C.J. Cotman and Tre Shaw, DBs
These are two of the players that will be asked to help fill the void left by the departures of M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles. Both players saw limited action this season, though Shaw did appear in all 12 games. Both are listed as corners and one will most likely replace Stewart while the other will also see his opportunities increase next fall.
Offseason Storyline: Getting the Quarterback Situation Right
The injuries were awful, but so was the quarterback play. Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott will battle it out this spring and it is likely that the competition will extend into August. North Carolina needs to find an answer or the storyline at the end of next year will be about head coach Larry Fedora’s job status.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.