WR Davis takes center stage in UNC offense

There are differences between the two quarterbacks vying for the starting job at North Carolina, receiver Quinshad Davis said.

With Marquise Williams, there’s a familiarity between passer and receiver that stemmed from extensive playing time together throughout last season. When Mitch Trubisky takes over the first-team offense, there’s a bit more of a learning curve, but the ball arrives with ample zip and usually in just the right spot.

But regardless of which quarterback is throwing the passes, the common ground is Davis, North Carolina’s top returning receiver and the foundation of the Tar Heels’ 2014 offense.

“I just like to have fun with all of them,” Davis said. “Whichever one I’m out there with, I’m catching balls, laughing and joking and making sure we have a good time out there.”

It’s a role North Carolina hopes Davis continues to fill this season as it settles on a starting quarterback and grooms a cadre of young talent in both the receiving corps and backfield. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Davis’ job this fall is to make sure his quarterback is having fun.

“That’s a great thing for those quarterbacks is to have a long-armed receiver, big targets with a big range they can throw the ball in,” coach Larry Fedora said. “They don’t have to be perfect because they have guys with seven-foot wing spans.”

Last season, North Carolina’s quarterbacks got a taste of what Davis could provide, but it was tight end Eric Ebron who did much of the heavy lifting.

Ebron -- 6-4, 245 and likely to be selected in the first round of next month’s NFL draft -- was UNC’s leading receiver last season and a go-to target in key situations. But as the Tar Heels shift focus to 2014, that role now projects to be filled largely by Davis -- and he’s eager to get started.

“I want to lead the offense,” Davis said. “I’m one of the few guys we have that’s been on the squad for years. I want to take that role and make those plays he made last year and get some people some open space to work one on one.”

There’s ample evidence that Davis is perfect for the job.

Among the ACC’s returning receivers in 2014, only Jamison Crowder, Tyler Boyd and Rashad Greene averaged more receiving yards per game last season than Davis (56.2). None caught more touchdowns (10). No one with as many catches (48) averaged more yards per reception (15.2). And as a sophomore last season, Davis was among the more reliable options in the league, hauling in 67 percent of his targets.

“Every ball that’s in the air, he expects to catch, no matter where the DB is on him,” Fedora said. “And that’s pretty good because he’s very competitive. He believes he can make every catch.”

That doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done as Davis enters his junior season.

As good as Davis’ numbers were last season, his reception and yardage totals actually dipped from his freshman campaign in 2012. The problem was consistency. Davis manhandled lesser defenses against East Carolina and Old Dominion, but he failed to post a 100-yard game against another ACC team. He turned in strong performances against Virginia Tech, Miami and NC State (16 catches, four TDs total), but all but was largely a non-factor against Georgia Tech and Duke and had just one catch for six yards in North Carolina’s bowl game.

As the rest of the Tar Heels’ offense jockeys for position on the depth chart, Fedora said Davis’ job is to simply get better -- and more consistent -- at all the things he was already doing well.

“He’s going to be counted on to make more plays in the offense,” Fedora said. “The next step for him is just to keep getting a little bit better in every phase of becoming a complete player. That’s blocking, catching, route-running, understanding the offense, leadership -- that’s everything, becoming a complete wide receiver.”

And if Davis can do that, he won’t simply fill some of the void left by Ebron’s departure, Williams said. Davis has the skill set to be one of the best receivers in the league, to post numbers similar to what Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin -- both first-round projections in the NFL draft, too — mustered last season.

“Those are some big-time receivers, but I feel like he’s in the top with those names,” Williams said. “People didn’t recognize it [last season] because we’re at North Carolina and that’s Florida State and Clemson. We don’t get as much respect. But I’m sure people will realize who he is this year.”