Pickeral: Francis Latest In Offensive Youth Movement

Pickeral: Francis Latest In Offensive Youth Movement

by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com

CHAPEL HILL -- Week after week, North Carolina running back Khris Francis had grinned, celebrated and congratulated as classmates Bug Howard, T.J. Logan and Ryan Switzer crossed the goal line.

So when the freshman from Durham finally had his turn Saturday, scoring his first career touchdown on a 15-yard reception against Virginia, "it felt good," Francis said, "to be part of the group."

Good because the TD catch helped the Tar Heels solidify their third straight win, keeping their bowl hopes alive after a frustrating 1-5 start. Better still because he became the latest example of a quickly-growing big-play youth movement on offense that also bodes well for UNC's future.

Consider this:

  • • Howard, a 6-4 wide receiver from Georgia, now has 19 catches for 238 yards, and the second-most touchdown receptions (four) on the team.
  • • Logan, a 5-10 running back from Greensboro who sat out the first four games of the season because of injury, is averaging a solid 4.5 yards per carry.
  • • Switzer, a 5-10(ish) do-a-bit-of-everything guy from West Virginia, has scored a touchdown in each of the Tar Heels' last three wins (on a catch, a pass and a punt return).

Then there are the youngsters who have pushed, pulled and contributed to those big plays up front. Redshirt freshmen Caleb Peterson and Jon Heck have started every game this season, and they combined for 20 knockdowns against the Cavaliers. In addition, true freshman Lucas Crowley has gotten more snaps at center in recent games.

"I think now, it just has to do with them getting more comfortable,'' UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "...Most of the first half of the season those guys are thinking about every step, every route, every technique. ... Now, we're getting more comfortable with what they can do, and that they know what to do.  We've played nine games, so they're starting to get more confident. It's a lot less thinking, and a lot more reactionary play."

Indeed, Francis admits he felt "overwhelmed" the first two games of the season, transitioning to the speed, strength and talent of college competition. "Everything is just happening so fast in your brain, you just have to stop panicking, not think too much,'' he said.

Switzer, too, said it took a few weeks to put everything in focus, for the game to slow down - especially after he had touchdowns called back because of penalties in games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. "It helps a lot when I calm myself and think about the fact that it's a game that we're playing, and one I've been good at my whole life," he said.

It helps, also, to have mentorship from upperclassmen. Switzer credited teammates such as seniors A.J. Blue and Kareem Martin for keeping the team - especially the freshmen -- focused despite a rough start.

"We're finally starting to get things clicking, and a lot of it has to do with the young guys on the team,'' Switzer said. "But the young guys wouldn't be making the plays without the senior leadership that we've had. We could have finished the season 1-11, but the seniors wouldn't let us do that. ... We look up to them. We learn from them. We wouldn't be excelling now without the senior leadership."

And there's plenty of room, time and young players to improve. After all, it's not just the rookies who are making a youthful mark on offense. Just look at quarterback Marquise Williams, a redshirt sophomore who stepped in after Bryn Renner's season-ending energy and was responsible for four touchdowns against Virginia. And sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis, who leads the team with eight touchdown catches this season.

Counting freshman safety Dominique Green's 62-yard interception return Saturday, all six touchdowns against the Cavaliers were scored by underclassmen. In fact, 24 of the 32 touchdowns this season have been scored by sophomores or freshmen.

"It's definitely a spark for this year that [the younger] guys have stepped up,'' Anderson said. "I don't think any of them have reached their max potential - they're all going to get better."

This season, they all hope - and beyond.

 "It sets a strong foundation," said Francis, who now would like to add another scorer or two to his 39 rushes for 147 yards this season. "It builds confidence for the future, and that's a positive thing, because having a bunch of young guys at this early age being able to make plays, that only ensures that we'll be better next year, and the year after that. We'll continue working on that, and that's a good thing."

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