Except for his performance last Saturday against Notre Dame, Phillip Dorsett’s teammates and coaches had a real hard time this week remembering how often they have seen the Hurricanes sophomore receiver drop a pass — even in practice.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch couldn’t remember any. Safety A.J. Highsmith guessed “one or two.”
Dorsett, for his part, hasn’t let any of the questions pertaining to his drops slip past him this week. He has met them all head on.
“I had a bad game and everybody wanted to know the reason for it,” said Dorsett, UM’s leading receiver with 29 catches for 470 yards and three touchdowns. “I’m not the type of person who is going to run away from it. If I made a mistake, I’m going to own up to it.”
Dorsett couldn’t remember how many drops he had in his worst game at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, but he did remember this: “I came back the next week and scored two times after that.”
The Hurricanes (4-2, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) would love nothing more than a stellar bounce-back performance from Dorsett on Saturday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium against North Carolina (4-2, 1-1 ACC). But Dorsett isn’t the only Canes receiver who coaches are hoping has a better day holding onto the football.
Drops have plagued UM’s offense all season.
Fisch said the Canes matched their season-high for drops with seven against the Fighting Irish — Dorsett had four. UM also had seven drops against Boston College and had five against North Carolina State at home two weeks ago, including two in the end zone, with one leading to an interception.
It has been a problem for just about every receiver on the roster, except for fifth-year senior Davon Johnson, Fisch said.
Johnson, who was among seven receivers recruited in the 2008 signing class (three are now rookies in the NFL), has become Mr. Reliable for the Canes.
Before being moved back to receiver this season from defensive back, Johnson had just five catches in his injury-plagued career — hamstring, shoulder surgery, knee scope — and simply couldn’t get on the field.
“I’ve just been focusing on the ball, looking it in with my eyes and hands, just focusing on it, gripping it,” said Johnson, who has 16 catches (fourth on the team) for 262 yards (third on the team) this season.
“[As a group], we’re just not really focused on the ball enough. We’re worried about getting the ball and running. [Receivers] Coach [George] McDonald gave us a whole speech, ‘Look the ball in, catch the ball with your eyes and hands and look the ball in. It’s always going to be natural to you.’ ”
Said quarterback Stephen Morris: “I’ve just got to continue to talk to them, continue to encourage them. They make plays for me throughout the season. You never want to be negative, you never want to look down on anybody. You just always want to stay upbeat and stay positive no matter what the situation is. Even if you’re up by 50 or down by 50, you still want to be the same guy every day. I think my receivers know that I’m going to always be there for them, no matter what.”
Hurricanes coach Al Golden said earlier this week that Robert Lockhart would see his first action of the season Saturday in the receivers rotation.
The 6-1, 188-pound true freshman from Delray Beach impressed coaches in camp, but he needed more practice on his route running to better prepare him, coaches said.
“He can go up and get the jump balls,” Dorsett said. “He has great ball control and body control. He can bring a lot of possession for us. I’m eager to see him play this week.”
Of UM’s top nine pass catchers, three are freshmen (Duke Johnson, Malcolm Lewis, Herb Waters) and two are sophomores (Dorsett, Rashawn Scott).
North Carolina ranks 30th in pass efficiency defense among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The Tar Heels are allowing opposing passers to complete 60.2 percent of their passes. They have given up only five touchdown passes and have eight interceptions.
“It’s going to be an all-day challenge for us,” Fisch said. “Their defensive line is excellent, they are very active. Their secondary does a great job of ball-hawking. They have a number of takeaways  and a high number of sacks. So our [offensive] line is going to have to do a great job.”