One of the biggest question marks for the UNC football program going into this season is at the wide receiver position. With Sam Howell off the NFL, the pressure is on the wide receiver position to help transition into the DrakeMaye or Jacolby Criswell era.
The good news for who ever will be commanding the huddle is that 2021 Biletnikoff semi-finalist Josh Downs will be on the receiving end of those throws. The bad news is the rest of the receivers struggled to get any separation and the next best receiver Antoine Green is set to be sidelined for 6-8 weeks after shoulder surgery.
Head coach Mack Brown and his staff are still optimistic with their wide receiver room and feeling like they are in better shape than the year prior. Now the question is who fills in for Green and which wideout can contribute in giving the opposing defense’s fits.
As the regular season approaches, we decided to continue our position preview with the wide receiver position and look at not only Downs and Green, but the depth behind them.
Sep 18, 2021; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs (11) catches a touchdown in the end zone as Virginia Cavaliers free safety Joey Blount (29) defends in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Going into the 2021 season, the hype train is all on for Josh Downs to have a year that builds off his UNC record-breaking season. Undoubtedly the rest of the core struggled to find consistency throughout the passing game, forcing Howell to take off or take a sack.
Downs carried the load for the wide-outs, finishing with 1335 receiving yards meanwhile Antoine Green finished with 612 receiving yards. Outside of these two weapons, UNC’s other wide-outs failed to eclipse 300 passing yards with running back Ty Chandler finishing fourth in receiving yards.
Wide-outs getting separation wasn’t the only problem, catchable balls often bounced off hands with frustration growing throughout the season.
To keep it simple…it was a struggle.
Jan 2, 2021; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs (11) runs with the football for a touchdown against the Texas A&M Aggies in the fourth quarter of the game at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Last season Downs emerged as one of the best wide receivers in college football using his speed and small frame to maneuver around defensive backs. The junior led the core in touchdowns (13) and broke the school record in a single-season for receptions (101) and yards (1335). Downs, already on many mock drafts, can continue his impressive UNC legacy and secure a spot in the 2023 NFL draft as a top wideout.
Career stats: 108 receptions, 1454 yards, 13.5 average, 11 touchdowns
Nov 6, 2021; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Antoine Green (3) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
The Robin to Down’s Batman was clearly Antoine Green as the second leading weapon on the wide receiver core. In 13 games, Green caught 31 passes for 612 yards and scored five touchdowns. Green is set to start the season sidelined, but when he returns UNC fans should anticipate a bigger season for the senior who looks to cap off his Carolina career with a bang. If UNC wants to do anything in the passing game this season, Green will have to step up and show out.
Career stats: 47 receptions, 912 yards, 19.4 average, 8 touchdowns
Sep 11, 2021; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels defensive lineman Myles Murphy (8) and defensive lineman Tomari Fox (56) and wide receiver J.J. Jones (5) and running back Kamarro Edmonds (33) react with fans in the fourth quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Sophomore three-star J.J. Jones could end up being the dark horse of the receiving core this season. Last year as a true freshman Jones barely saw any action, making impact in only two games where he caught a total of four receptions. His best game of the season came against Wofford where Jones finished with 61 yards on just three receptions. Jones posseses a solid 6’2 frame making him a suitable target in the red-zone, with many expecting a major leap in his second season in Carolina blue.
Career stats: 4 receptions, 67 yards, 16.8 average, 0 touchdowns
Oct 30, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Justin Olson (83) carries the ball as Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Drew White (40) defends in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Last but not least, there is junior Justin Olson, who had splashes of plays sprinkled throughout the season. Olson appeared in all 13 games, starting seven of them, and becoming one of Howell’s weapons to move the chains. This was a major bounce back for the three-star recruit who missed out his entire 2019 season due to injury and seen limited time in 2020. This past season, the North Carolina native finished with nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Career stats: 9 receptions, 143 yards, 15.9 average, 1 touchdowns
Dec 30, 2021; Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs (11) tries to catch the ball as South Carolina Gamecocks defensive backs Jaylan Foster (12) and Carlins Platel (21) defend in the second quarter during the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Projected starter: Josh Downs/ Antoine Green/ JJ Jones
Backup: Justin Olson/ Kobe Paysour/ Gavin Blackwell
Depth: Andre Greene Jr., Tylee Craft, Tychaun Chapman
Sep 11, 2021; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Antoine Green (3) catches a touchdown pass as Georgia State Panthers cornerback Jaylon Jones (27) defends in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Who will step up?!
UNC knows what they have in Downs, but with Green sidelined and a new quarterback leading the charge, someone will have to step up. Last season the core disappointed, and if they want to not repeat the 6-7 disaster from last season, Carolina will have to find that perfect wide receiver one/two while Downs works the slot.
The other remaining question is how much will we see four-star recruit Gavin Blackwell? The redshirt freshman, ranked as the 35th best wide out in the nation and 13th best player in North Carolina, can give a major boost to the receiving core. Blackwell possesses speed that rivals Downs with a similar build that could give UNC the perfect amount of separation if both saw the field at the same time. Blackwell’s raw talents should be used early and often, but it will be interesting to see if Carolina slowly brings him into the game plan.
Dec 28, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; A North Carolina Tar Heels helmet lays on the field prior to the start of the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
While the focus is on this season, UNC does need to keep some prospects in the pipeline at wide receiver. As Downs could play his final year as a Tar Heel, passing the torch could be important to keeping Carolina in a winning situation. Let’s look at the pipeline below:
Antoine Green (c/o 2018)
Justin Olson (c/o 2018)
Josh Downs (c/o 2020)
Gavin Blackwell (c/o 2021)
J.J Jones (c/o 2021)
Kobe Paysour (c/o 2021)
Andre Greene Jr. (c/o 2022)
Tychaun Chapman (c/o 2022)
Chris Culliver* (c/o 2023)
Christian Hamilton* (c/o 2023)