By splitting carries, UNC’s running backs feel fresh for NFL

Javonte Williams and Michael Carter could have shouldered a much bigger load at other college football programs in the nation. But over the past three seasons, two of the best running backs in the nation became a dynamic tandem at North Carolina, breaking big plays one after another.

In 2020, the two backs had a near split when it came to carries -- Williams with 157 and Carter with 156. Carter ran for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns while Williams totaled 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns. Carter ranked fourth in the nation in yards and Williams was close behind at sixth.

More impressive, both backs averaged over 7 yards per carry, which proves the big-play potential they possess. To put this in greater context, Carter’s yardage total came out to 221 less than Alabama’s Najee Harris’ 1,466 yards, with Harris appearing in two more games with 95 additional carries.

Williams believes the two-back system at UNC not only shows a selfless quality between the two, but it has preserved their health for the NFL.

“Honestly, I feel like a lot of players get overworked and have their best football in college,” Williams said. “But with the two-back system, and my sophomore year having three backs, I feel like I’m fresh and my best football is ahead of me.”

Carter enrolled at North Carolina in 2017 and was a role player for two seasons. As a junior in 2019, head coach Mack Brown elected to go with a two-back approach with Carter and Williams. Carter, the older of the two, could have been upset about the decision not to be given a large majority of the carries.

But Carter saw the position as a game of quality vs. quantity. He said if a running back needs a ton of carries per game, he probably won’t do a good job. What matters more is what a running back does on each of his allotted caries.

“Our whole careers we’ve had to split carries, both of us,” Carter said. “It’s less important with how long you’re on the field but more important to know you have to make quality plays when you’re on the field to stay out there.”

Brown used Williams and Carter’s contrasting traits to his team’s advantage. Williams is powerful but has speed. Carter is elusive with great vision and patience. Both can break away on long runs. Both can catch the ball well and pass protect.

Brown likened his two backs to the USC tandem -- Reggie Bush and LenDale White -- he coached against in the 2006 Rose Bowl when he was at Texas.

“Those two guys were two of the best to ever play (college football) and maybe the best combination,” Brown said. “And then people started comparing Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to them at midseason. The numbers were even better than those two had at the time.”

When it comes to their NFL prospects, Williams, who declared for the draft following his junior season, is considered to be among the top three running backs in this year’s class with Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne.

Brown was asked to state why Williams, at 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, has a case for being the top back in this year’s running back group.

“The advantage you would give to Javonte is his size,” Brown said. “He’s so powerful and he bounced off plates week in and week out. That big back sometimes in the fourth quarter is a lot better than any back in the first quarter because they just keep pounding and pounding.”

Conversely, what’s likely kept Carter from being in that top group is his size at 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds. Both Williams and Brown believe it would be a mistake to overlook him based on that.

“I feel like Michael can do it all,” Williams said. “A lot of people might knock him because he’s shorter but I don’t feel that has limited him at all in his college career. He’s a great player. He’s somebody I’ve competed against. I wish nothing but the best for Michael.”

Said Brown: “People worry about his size. Michael is very strong. And he’s a lot bigger than his height and he plays bigger than his height. He can pass protect, he can catch the ball. What he’s got is the power to run inside and he has an amazing ability to be patient and make the cut. He can jump sideways on a cut and then be full speed coming out of his break. That’s very difficult to do.”

Throughout their time at North Carolina, Williams and Carter became friends and never had an issue with sharing touches. And throughout their time as teammates, they took pieces from each other’s game to apply it to their own.

Both Williams and Carter are confident in their own, and each other’s, ability at the next level, whether it comes as a three-down back or part of a committee.

“What’s important with me and Javonte is we learned a lot from each other,” Carter said. “I think some things just pick off his game. You watch him when he runs, he’ll take a hit and not even break stride. There’s an art to it. He’s very strong but he plays really low. What I love about him is we both play with passion. If he breaks off a long run, I have to have the next one. And vice versa. We were able to compete with each other and have fun doing it.”

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