“What did I inherit?” Blake Anderson says, repeating the question. Yes, what did the Tar Heel offensive coordinator inherit in Eric Ebron, a player recruited by a previous staff? What were the raw materials that led to the tight end’s ability to thrive in a completely different offensive scheme.
“That’s a really loaded question right there,” Anderson says, finally, before offering, in so many words, that Ebron is a pain in the rear end. “I say that with the biggest smile on my face.”
Anderson smiles because while Ebron’s outsize personality can border on overwhelming, he’s one of the finest athletes Anderson has worked with in his coaching career. “He is a load and a handful, personality-wise, which can be good and bad,” the offensive coordinator says. “But I love him to death, and I think he’s got an unbelievable future ahead of him.”
Eric Ebron is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, and off the football field, one rarely sees him without a giant smile. He’s a tight end that’s big enough to block rushing defensive ends but also has the speed to get downfield in a hurry.
Ebron is a good football player, and he knows it. “I get criticized for my blocking, but that’s OK,” he says. “Because if you turn on the film just like every coach does, you’ll see me blocking people fabulously. Tremendously. I’m moving people, I’m opening up holes for my running backs, I’m doing everything I need to.”
Ebron is the right combination of superior athlete with supreme self-confidence. He’s good, he knows he’s good and he has high expectations of himself. In the off-season, he set a goal of 12 receiving touchdowns. That would tie the single-season record held by Hakeem Nicks (2008) and Dwight Jones (2011). A lofty goal, sure, but one that his head coach endorsed. “He’s going to give me 12 touchdowns, I can tell you that,” Larry Fedora said in July. “What he gets beyond that, that’s up to him. Eric can be in my opinion be the best tight end in college football this next year.”
Though recruited to play under Butch Davis in John Shoop’s pro-style offense, Ebron says the offense introduced by Anderson and Fedora is a perfect fit. “If anything, I was trying to learn pro-style, trying to become a blocking tight end (as a freshman),” he says.
Anderson’s spread, no-huddle offense enhanced the talents that Ebron brought to Chapel Hill. “Catching-wise, I don’t see another tight end that does the things that I do,” he says. “I try to set myself apart from everybody else and that’s [by becoming] a whole tight end. That’s not a tight end that’s just a receiver or just a blocker. I’m a complete package, and there’s not a lot of tight ends that can say that in college football.”
It took until the third game of the season for Ebron to haul in his first touchdown, but the catch was spectacular. His 19-yard touchdown catch against Georgia Tech—the ball tipped off the fingertips of his left hand before the tight end ultimately secured it—was the highlight of the early portion of the Tar Heels’ schedule. “I overthrew the ball a little bit, and he made a great play,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.
But while Ebron had six catches for 108 yards, he was not satisfied with his performance in the Tar Heels’ 28-20 loss. “To me, I can do better,” he says. “I can get even better, and that’s my drive. That’s my motivation. I went for 108. I’m trying to go for 150 this week. If I do that, it’ll help the team.”
Ebron’s 40 catches in 2012 ranked fourth on the team, but his 625 yards trailed only Quinshad Davis among the Tar Heels. Through five games, his 23 catches for 333 yards have him four and 35 clear of Davis. “I still think he can get better, which is kind of scary, because he’s pretty dang good as it is,” Anderson says. “His attitude, his personality has really improved in the last year, and he’s focused on getting better. He’s focused on making us better.”
Recently, the Tar Heels have asked Ebron to do a lot. With fellow tight end Jack Tabb suspended two games for a violation of team rules, it fell to Ebron to be on the field for more than his share of offensive snaps. “I took off maybe two or three (plays at Georgia Tech),” he said after a practice. “It hurts, but what can I do? It’s for the team. Every time I practice, every time I’m on the field, it’s for the team. So, I’ve got to put my emotions, my hurt, my illnesses aside and I’ve got to do it for the team.”
Fedora suggested that the Tar Heels might have leaned too heavily on Ebron in the game at Georgia Tech. “We probably needed to spell him a little more than we did,” he said.
Ebron had just one of his six catches in the second half (on what appeared to be a designed end run), but he would not use fatigue as an excuse. In fact, he wouldn’t use any excuse. “I don’t blame the weather. I don’t blame the refs. I don’t blame none of it. I felt like we didn’t execute as a complete offense,” he said. “I can play every play if they ask me to, and I do that because of the team.” Despite his importance to the offense, Ebron is not above playing special teams as well. “We’ve got gaps we need to fill,” he said, “and if I need to fill them, I’ll fill them.”
A projected-first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Ebron understands that helping the team win can only magnify his own performance. And in football, no goal is truly personal: a pass-catcher needs a quarterback to get him the ball and an offensive line to give that quarterback time. He needs other receivers to draw defenders.
Ebron got deserved accolades for his circus catch in Atlanta, but Renner ball-faked a bubble screen toss to Tapley before throwing downfield. Left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine and left guard Caleb Peterson kept the Georgia Tech rush at bay. A player with high personal expectations must be able to depend on those around him. “Trust and faith in my teammates,” he said. “I’ll go to war with those guys every day.”
Carolina’s running game has struggled in 2013. The Tar Heels had rushed for just 100 yards per game through the season’s first five contests, more than 90 yards off the pace set a year ago. Ebron understands that he can help the rushing attack both by blocking and by communicating with his teammates and coaches. A healthy run game sets up the pass, enabling him to strive for those personal goals.
“I can help the running game by continuously doing my job. I tell the coaches to run behind me, or if they’re overloading my side, to run away from me so I can be a distraction to the defense and I can be a headache for defensive coordinators,” he said. Ebron knows that if he is being game-planned against, that opens things up for his teammates.
Ebron’s production could certainly speak for itself, but it doesn’t need to, because the player is his own biggest cheerleader. Just as he can be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators, he’s not above getting on his own coaches’ nerves as well. “I like to get up under Coach Anderson’s skin,” he said. “I like to get up under Coach Bell’s skin, Coach Fedora’s skin. It’s the only way for them to let them know that I’m here, and I’m always going to be here,” he says. “I’m letting them know that I’m going to be a thorn in their side every day we’re at practice because of situations like Saturday. I want the ball. And if you don’t give me the ball, I’m going to be even more of a pain in your side.”
Despite that claim, one gets the feeling that with the production Eric Ebron brings to the field, his coaches are going to know he’s there one way or another.