The North Carolina Tarheels are no strangers to having dynamic playmakers that excel both in the return game and within the structure of the offense. Former Tarheels Gio Bernard, Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan left behind impressive legacies in that regard and current Tarheel Anthony-Ratliff Williams has the upside to carry the torch.
Earning First-Team All-ACC honors as a specialist in 2017, Ratliff-Williams' 895 kick return yards ranked second nationally while also returning two for scores. His 630 receiving yards led UNC in 2017, nearly doubling the amount of the second leading receiver. Six of his 35 receptions went for touchdowns while averaging 18 yards per catch.
Coming out of high school, Ratliff-Williams was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the state of North Carolina but has since made the transition to wide receiver and kick returner while creating dazzling plays in a variety of ways. After catching just three passes in 2016, Ratliff-Williams accounted for 10 total touchdowns in three different ways during his breakout season in 2017.
A secret no more, Ratliff-Williams is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the ACC and has my firm attention as an NFL Draft prospect. Studying his 2017 film revealed an exciting player. Let's examine why.
Only playing the receiver position since 2016, there are some high-level flashes in Ratliff-Williams' film that have me intrigued. His blazing speed and acceleration is easy to identify, but it's his ball skills and ability to win at the catch point that impresses me most at this stage of his development.
I'll talk more about Ratliff-Williams' ability as a route runner momentarily, but this rep is a great illustration of how he works tempo in his route stem to lure the cornerback forward and then just simply blows by him. And the finish is a thing of beauty as he elevates for the football and catches it at its highest point.
You don't expect a wide receiver that has only played the position for just over a year to quickly have such an aggressive, alpha mentality at the catch point but that's exactly what you get from Ratliff-Williams. This next rep is a prime example of how he effectively leverages the corner and extends for the football while showcasing impressive ball skills and strong hands to finish.
Listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Ratliff-Williams doesn't necessarily profile as a power-forward type receiver that should be given opportunities to make plays on 50/50 balls but it's just another layer to his game.
On this next rep, notice how five steps into his route Ratliff-Williams gets on the toes of the the corner and fakes an inside move that forces the corner to open his hips inside. That move enables Ratliff-Williams to take advantage of the space outside the numbers and the QB makes a dangerous throw in a tight window. Ratliff-Williams' ball skills and ability to elevate leads to an impressive reception between two defenders.
As you have seen, Ratliff-Williams has a knack for the spectacular play already in his transition to wide receiver. While this throw is egregious given the amount of space available in front of Ratliff-Williams, it did provide an opportunity for him to make a circus reel catch. Ratliff-Williams does well to keep his frame in a favorable position to make a play that requires a high level of concentration. My favorite part of this clip is how Ratliff-Williams doesn't allow the contact to affect him and he remains focused throughout the process of securing the reception.
The clips I have shared so far have featured contested catches that showcase Ratliff-Williams' ability to win at the catch point. But make no mistake about it, Ratliff-Williams is an explosive athlete that is capable of taking a quick pass the distance, getting behind the secondary and returning kicks to the house.
On this play, Ratliff-Williams runs a shallow cross and does well to adjust his route to provide his quarterback a target between zones. And when he hauls in the pass, it's off to the races. Neither of the Edmunds brothers for Virginia Tech (No. 22 and No. 49), who are both athletic freaks and 2018 first round draft picks were able to get an angle on Ratliff-Williams and he accelerates at a rate that the defenses couldn't match.
Separation, on account of speed and burst, is another area where Ratliff-Williams finds success. There are times that it's just a matter of him being 1v1 with an opponent and testing if they can remain in phase with him vertically. More often than not, they can't. This rep is a prime example of how Ratliff-Williams can leave a corner in the dust.
Ratliff-Williams experience as a quarterback allows for creativity on offense. Yes, he can win in space, take the top off the secondary, return kicks and dominate at the catch point but after opponents are done accounting for all the ways he can win, there's also the threat of him throwing a pass. Ratliff-Williams tossed two touchdown passes in 2017 and forces opponents to be prepared for him in so many ways.
If Ratliff-Williams has already compiled the resume that he has with minimal experience at the position, then the future is sky high for him. It's also important to consider UNC's quarterback position that featured a revolving door last season between Chazz Surratt, Nathan Elliott and Brandon Harris. With all three attempting at least 71 passes during the season, it was impossible for the Tarheels to find any rhythm offensively.
In terms of his NFL projection, Ratliff-Williams has plenty of upside but developing more nuance as a route runner and showcasing an expanded route tree would take him to the next level. As it stands, Ratliff-Williams wins with athletic ability, hands, ball skills and competitive toughness. While those are terrific strengths, refining and expanding on his technique as a route runner is needed. Becoming more of route salesman, developing foot and hand work at the line of scrimmage and more consistently attacking leverage are musts in his growth as a prospect.
With another off season of dedicated work at the receiver position and hopefully a settled quarterback situation, Ratliff-Williams should be able to continue his ascension and produce even more big plays.
Ratliff-Williams is primed for a monster 2018 season - in more ways than one.