The top 10 North Carolina football players you need to know for 2016. These are the Tar Heel stars to watch out for.
1. RB Elijah Hood, Jr.
Hood is coming off a monster sophomore season, one of the best by a running back in school history. And he’s just getting started. The former blue-chip recruit had a blue-chip debut in the starting lineup, plowing through defenses for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns on only 219 carries. Hood is a punishing 6-0, 220-pound runner, with the build-up speed and giddyup to bounce off would-be tacklers daring to enter the path of his destruction.
2. WR Ryan Switzer, Sr.
If Switzer has the ball in his hands, he’s liable to blow a game wide open with a momentum-changing play. He’s arguably the most dangerous return man in college football, having already taken seven punts back for touchdowns to pull within one of the all-time NCAA record. The 5-10, 185-pound Switzer is also a proven slot receiver, earning Third Team All-ACC a year ago with 55 catches for 697 yards and six touchdowns. He’s quick in space, polished in his routes and prone to hauling in everything that’s catchable.
3. WR Mack Hollins, Sr.
Hollins sure has taken the road less travelled to prominence in Chapel Hill. But now that the former walk-on is here, he’s going to continue outworking everyone in the quest for more touches. Hollins has come a long way in a short period of time, budding seemingly out of nowhere to earn All-ACC recognition in each of the past two seasons. In 2015, he needed just 30 catches to amass 745 yards and eight touchdowns. And at 6-4 and 210 pounds, with long arms and big mitts, he’ll school opposing DBs on 50-50 balls.
4. CB M.J. Stewart, Jr.
In just his second year on campus, Stewart blew up into one of the league’s feistiest defensive backs. A physical presence in all phases of the game, he was named to the All-ACC Second Team for making 62 tackles, four interceptions and a team-high 14 pass breakups. At 5-11 and 200 pounds, Stewart is thick enough to outmuscle opposing wide receivers, and he plays with no shortage of confidence and swagger.
5. QB Mitch Trubisky, Jr.
It’s time. Time for the former Mr. Football in the state of Ohio to get his shot to run the Tar Heel offense. Trubisky patiently waited and learned behind Marquise Williams, but now that graduation has created an opening, the 6-3, 220-pounder is ready to explode through it. Trubisky is a better passer than Williams, yet he’s also a good athletic fit for Larry Fedora’s offense. Plus, he knows the system, rushing for three scores and completing 40-of-47 passes last season for 555 yards, six touchdowns and no picks in a reserve. Trubisky is nicely set up to be one of the ACC’s breakout stars of 2016.
6. OT Jon Heck, Sr.
Heck will begin 2016 as one of the most accomplished—and experienced—linemen in the entire ACC. Nothing is going to surprise the reigning All-ACC Second Team selection, who has already started 38 games as a Tar Heel. Heck is a terrific pocket protector, using the long arms that come with being 6-7 and 300 pounds to keep opposing pass rushers away from his body.
7. OG Caleb Peterson, Sr.
Peterson has become a fixture at left guard in Chapel Hill. He’s been in the opening lineup since his freshman year, peaking in 2015 with an appearance on the All-ACC Second Team. Peterson has excellent size, 6-5 and 300 pounds, and a track record as a road grader, but there’s still room for improvement when the Tar Heel quarterbacks drop back to throw.
8. C Lucas Crowley, Sr.
Crowley is a veteran of 27 career starts, coming off a Third Team All-ACC junior campaign. The 6-3, 290-pounder made huge year-over-year strides from 2014, particularly as a run blocker. While Crowley isn’t going to run many linemen over, he will use his agility and sound fundamentals to create daylight for Elijah Hood and the rest of the running backs.
9. DT Nazair Jones, Jr.
Jones has begun coming into his own, tapping into the potential that could eventually make him one of the top interior linemen in the league. He earned Third Team All-ACC in 2015 for making 40 stops, four tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. Jones possesses next-level size and strength at 6-5 and 295 pounds, with just enough bounce in his step to be the kind of disruptive tackle that coordinator Gene Chizik covets.
10. CB Des Lawrence, Sr.
Lawrence deserves some of the credit for the Tar Heels’ improvement in pass defense, delivering an All-ACC Second Team performance according to the league coaches. He was involved in both run and pass defense, registering 59 tackles, two picks and 14 pass breakups to tie M.J. Stewart for the team lead. Plus, at 6-1 and 185 pounds he has the length and long arms to match most of the taller receivers on the schedule.