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Tar Heels finding clarity at running back. Here’s who emerged

North Carolina running back Caleb Hood (4) breaks through the line during the Tar Heels’ first day of practice on Thursday, August 5, 2021 in Chapel Hill N.C.

North Carolina running back Caleb Hood (4) breaks through the line during the Tar Heels’ first day of practice on Thursday, August 5, 2021 in Chapel Hill N.C.

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North Carolina coach Mack Brown navigated the Tar Heels through a scrimmage that lasted nearly 100 plays on Saturday weighing one observation more than any others.

He was looking for separation.

Most of the starting spots have been accounted for, but when it comes to backup and reserve positions that will assuredly be in the rotation, critical position battles remain.

Running back is arguably the position with the most moving parts. With Javonte Williams and Michael Carter both turning pro after last season, the Heels didn’t have an incumbent ready to assume the starting role.

It’s why Brown recruited Ty Chandler as a graduate transfer from Tennessee. Chandler is the most likely starter at running back as the most experienced player UNC has at the position. Brown said the competition to join Chandler as a primary ball carrier finally saw a breakthrough.

“The first back other than Ty Chandler to go in would be Caleb Hood right now,” Brown told reporters during a video conference on Sunday. “Caleb’s making progress and doing a good job. The other guys are still competing for a spot.”

D.J. Jones, British Brooks, Josh Henderson and Elijah Green are among the running backs still aiming to earn a place in the rotation.

That Hood has stepped forward is bit surprising considering he arguably had the most difficult transition to make. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Rockingham native, enrolled in January and began converting to running back after playing quarterback at Richmond Senior High School. Brown said Hood has answered some of the concerns the coaching staff had about how he’d adapt to pass protection and ball security.

“He’s got a really good patience about him up inside and he’s got the speed outside,” Brown said. “He can stop and start on a dime. He’s a guy that can start to the right, stop, plant and dart back to the left and make people miss it. Every practice with him, we get more impressed.”

Brown isn’t at a place where he needs his two-deep roster set for the season opener at Virginia Tech on Sept. 3. But he’s inching toward it. The Heels have practiced enough during their fall camp to where he believes players should be emerging — especially at backup quarterback.

It’s probably the closest contested position battle, where freshman Drake Maye and sophomore Jacolby Criswell have seemingly alternated earning the QB2 spot behind starter Sam Howell.

“We get excited one day that one of them is about to separate and then another day, it just seems like it flips, it’s really been interesting,” Brown said. “And the same thing (Saturday), both made some plays. So I’m going to really challenge (offensive coordinator Phil Longo) here over the next three weeks to try to figure out better ways to separate.”

Brown said on Saturday they even took Howell out for a portion of passing drills to allow Criswell and Maye a chance to get more reps. The two are positioning for next season when presumably Howell is in the NFL as much as they are vying for the chance to step in this season if Howell is injured.

“Right now, that’s the urgency,” Brown said. “As far as next year, one of these two guys will be running our team — and it might even be both of them until we get somebody to separate here — so that’s a concern.”

NOTE: Linebacker Ethan West, a redshirt freshman from Richmond, Va., is out for the season with a lower body injury. Offensive lineman Wyatt Tunal, a sophomore from Chester, S.C., has an upper body injury that will keep him out the opener against the Hokies. Cornerback Storm Duck has returned to practice after being out with a lower body injury.

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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