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Carolina cavalry: UNC’s Bug Man answers the call

Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire

North Carolina’s offense was dealt a significant blow on Oct. 15 when a broken clavicle sidelined receiver Mack Hollins for the year.

Hollins suffered the injury against Miami while doing something he did regularly — catching a deep ball. The senior was one of the top downfield threats in college football; he led the nation in 2015 with a 24.83 yards-per-catch average. His home-run ability led to 20 career receiving touchdowns, which is good for third in UNC program history.

Replacing Hollins’ production won’t be an easy task. With Hollins out, though, another veteran wideout has stepped up for the Tar Heels: Bug Howard.

Howard donned the No. 13 jersey on Saturday versus Virginia to honor Hollins. That number was called a lot throughout the day.

The 6-5 Howard hauled in seven receptions for a team-leading 109 yards and a touchdown in UNC’s 35-14 victory over the Cavaliers. His 40-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter prompted a momentum swing that resulted in 21 straight points for the Tar Heels, who held on to the lead for the rest of the afternoon.

The senior created constant problems for Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall. Despite possessing a 6-3, 200-pound frame, Hall was physically outmatched. Howard beat him deep on a trick-play pass that resulted in a score but also dominated him on short and intermediate routes.

Seeing the Rochelle, Ga., native step up had to be a relief for the Carolina coaching staff, given what was missing; Hollins caught two balls for 120 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s last trip to Charlottesville in 2014.

Howard has now had two of the most productive games of his career since Hollins’ injury. Against the Hurricanes, Howard finished with career highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (156). Eight of those catches and 101 of the yards came after Hollins left the game. Five of his grabs on the day went for at least 15 yards.

No matter what Howard does, it will be nearly impossible for him to keep defenses honest the way Hollins did as a deep threat. Howard is averaging 14.9 yards per catch this fall compared to Hollins’ 19.3. While both were starters throughout the first half of the season, Howard is more of a high-volume wideout while Hollins was often counted on for two or three long balls per game.

However, Howard is already showing he can increase his production with his fellow senior out, and he poses a similar threat to defenses in other ways. A former high school basketball player, he’s a weapon on jump balls, as evidenced by his game-winning touchdown against Pitt. He also has a nose for the end zone with 14 career scores.

Each of UNC’s three remaining FBS opponents ranks outside the top 45 in yards per pass allowed. The other foe left on the schedule, The Citadel, is an FCS squad.

The Tar Heels will continue to lean on their passing game as the season progresses, and with mediocre pass defenses awaiting, Howard should be licking his chops. It’s not ideal for UNC to be missing Hollins, but Howard’s recent play is easing the burden.

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