North Carolina has big shoes to fill in its receiving corps after losing three of its top targets in Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard to graduation. Their departures have created the opportunity for south Charlotte natives Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson to take on greater roles in the offense, especially in the passing game.
Proehl, the son of former NFL veteran wide receiver Ricky Proehl, played his high school ball at Providence, where he amassed more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and scored 25 touchdowns during two years of varsity action with the Panthers.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior is a natural. He grew up learning the fundamentals of the game from his father. Proehl isn’t only a reliable pass catcher, but has been UNC’s best route runner almost since he arrived on campus.
Proehl has been in the rotation of receivers since he was a true freshman, but emerged as an even more significant contributor last season as a junior when he reeled in 43 receptions for 597 yards and three touchdowns. He became North Carolina’s third option in its passing attack. Now, Proehl is the Tar Heels’ go-to target.
“I’ve prepared for this my whole life,” Proehl said. “I’ve prayed and asked to be in this position since I got here three-and-a-half years ago. I’m blessed. I’m happy to be in this position. I’m taking full advantage of my role, full advantage of the opportunity. I’m excited about what’s to come.”
North Carolina wide receiver and former Butler great Anthony Ratliff-Williams said Proehl is the veteran in the receiving corps, because of what he knows and has done on the field. Ratliff-Williams said he and the other receivers will follow Proehl’s lead.
Jackson’s journey has been different. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior came to Chapel Hill as a walk-on after an impressive high school career at Charlotte Country Day, where he amassed nearly 1,600 yards of total offense and scored 19 touchdowns. However, Jackson wasn’t expected to do much, but he has flipped those expectations upside down.
North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora elevated Jackson from his status as a walk-on to a scholarship player before the start of last season during fall camp. He shocked most people, especially his opponents when he caught a 34-yard touchdown pass during UNC’s biggest win of the year last season, a 37-35, victory on the road at Florida State.
Jackson finished last with 17 receptions for 186 yards and four touchdowns. Now, he is the Heels’ second most experienced receiver behind Proehl.
Ratliff-Williams said Jackson has several tools that he brings to the team, which he displayed last season. Jackson will get the opportunity display his repertoire of talents on a much grander scale in 2017.
“I’m going to get more plays,” Jackson said. “I’m really expecting my role to really increase next year.”
Jackson said he and Proehl are there to encourage and pick up the younger receivers around them.
“You got to be more vocal,” Jackson said. “Guys are going to look to me and Proehl. They’re going to look to us when we need a play.”