North Carolina Tar Heels’ Top 10 Returning Players in 2024 Include Omarion Hampton, J.J. Jones

    While the North Carolina Tar Heels enter a transitional year in 2024, their top 10 returning players feature plenty of explosive playmakers.

    Mack Brown is back for another year, one in which the North Carolina Tar Heels go through transitions at significant positions. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be competitive.

    The top 10 returning players for North Carolina have plenty of experience and talent, with one position determining how high they soar in 2024.

    North Carolina Tar Heels’ Top 10 Returners in 2024

    Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes on each team’s roster page to open spring camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.

    10) Max Johnson, QB

    No one really envies the player taking over for Drake Maye. The former Tar Heels quarterback did some special things for the offense, but now he’s off to the NFL. Conner Harrell got a chance to start in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and should compete for the starting spot. His competition is Texas A&M transfer Max Johnson.

    Johnson, the son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson, is already at his third school and hoping this is the right fit. The southpaw showed flashes of his potential at Texas A&M and LSU and joins a North Carolina Tar Heels offense with plenty of firepower.

    9) Jakeen Harris, S

    Coming from their rival just down the street, safety Jakeen Harris was a great addition by this staff via the transfer portal. A multiyear starter, Harris was a big part of a tough NC State defense for the past few years. An injury limited him to two games this past year, and he surprised Wolfpack fans with his decision to come to Chapel Hill.

    Harris brings 45 games of experience, and with that experience comes 167 tackles, 11 passes defended, and four interceptions for his career. The Tar Heels defense needed help at safety, and Harris should be an instant impact player when healthy.

    8) John Copenhaver, TE

    If the Tar Heels take a step back in the passing game, it won’t be because of a lack of pass catchers. Whoever wins the quarterback battle has plenty of options this year, and the tight end position should be deep.

    John Copenhaver only caught 18 passes last year, but he turned that into 279 yards (a 15.5 yards per catch average) and four touchdowns. He’s competing with Bryson Nesbit and Texas A&M transfer Jake Johnson, but he’s proven to be a reliable option downfield.

    7) Kobe Paysour, WR

    We’ve learned with the Tar Heels that sometimes good talent can get buried on the depth chart due to a sheer amount of top-tier options. Deontez Walker’s addition last fall ensured that someone would move down in the rotation, and unfortunately, Kobe Paysour was one of those guys.

    Former Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum is another name to watch, and the combination of McCollum and Paysour could wreak havoc for the Tar Heels this year. Both are quick in their cuts, making it difficult for defenders to cover them in the slot.

    6) Alijah Huzzie, CB

    It’s always interesting to see players jump from the FCS level to a Power Five program. Alijah Huzzie came from East Tennessee State last fall and had plenty of traits that this staff liked as a potential ballhawk. It took a little time to get familiar with the speed of the game, but Huzzie put together an impressive season.

    MORE: 2024 ACC Weekly Football Schedule

    He led the team in interceptions last year, and we should expect teams to test him a little less after that performance. North Carolina’s defense finished 94th against the pass last year, but at least Huzzie returns to help improve this unit in that area.

    5) Bryson Nesbit, TE

    Again, tight end is a deep position for the Tar Heels this year, so don’t be surprised if they utilize two tight end sets more. Bryson Nesbit fits the tight end role, but he can also be utilized like a receiver. He finished third on the team in catches and receiving yards last fall and finished second on the team in receiving touchdowns.

    The 6’5″ senior out of Charlotte, North Carolina, can be a matchup problem for the opposing defense, giving the quarterback battle-winner a big target to find. The Tar Heels passing attack finished 14th last year, but they need their new quarterback to gel quickly with their weapons out wide.

    4) Kaimon Rucker, DE

    Another player who surprised many by returning to school, Kaimon Rucker leads the way up front for the Tar Heels defense. He produced the best season of his career in 2023 with 61 tackles, 15.0 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks, and provides an important leadership role on and off the field.

    Rucker has some nice tools in his game. He’s quick off the ball, and no one learned that quicker than South Carolina last year. In the first game of the season against the Gamecocks, Rucker produced 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He has a future in the NFL, and now he’ll look to fine-tune certain parts of his game to improve his draft stock.

    3) Power Echols, LB

    Not only does he have a great name, but Power Echols has the game to go with it. He’s coming off back-to-back 100-tackle seasons for the Tar Heels and inherits a more prominent role with Cedric Gray off to the NFL.

    Echols must learn a new system with Geoff Collins taking over as defensive coordinator, but it gives him opportunities to do different things within the defense. The fanbase should get a glimpse of the new system in the spring, and Echols is one of the players who will help dictate how quickly the group learns.

    2) J.J. Jones, WR

    After a 2022 campaign with 18.1 yards per catch, J.J. Jones was set to have a breakout season in 2023. While it wasn’t quite as explosive as anticipated, Jones still posted solid numbers with 711 yards on 46 receptions. Heading into 2024, he’s the go-to target for the quarterbacks and could have an even bigger season.

    Jones is explosive, as evidenced by his stats, and the Tar Heels staff love what they see in his game. A 1,000-yard season appears on the horizon, and it shouldn’t take too many receptions, given Jones’ efficiency.

    1) Omarion Hampton, RB

    Depth at running back has been a strength for the Tar Heels for a while now, but this year should be slightly different. Omarion Hampton is the group’s undisputed leader and will get most of the carries. Watching the film makes it easy to see why.

    KEEP READING: 2024 ACC Power Rankings

    He’s a strong ball carrier who can be a homerun threat for the offense, and teams know they’re in for a long day when they face the Tar Heels. If the quarterback situation isn’t resolved quickly, Hampton should be even more of a factor early in the season.

    Miss any action from the top college QB Rankings during the 2023 football season? Want to track all the movement with the college football transfer portal? College Football Network has you covered with that and more!

    College Football Transfer Portal Tracker

    Never miss a beat with the CFN-exclusive College Football Transfer Portal Tracker, listing the student-athletes entering and exiting the transfer portal.

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