CHAPEL HILL North Carolina will enter the college football season with optimism that the skill positions – quarterbacks and running backs and receivers – can be as good as any in the ACC, and with hope that the defense will be improved after a midseason turnaround last year.
There is hope for UNC in a lot of places – from special teams, where Ryan Switzer last season developed into the best punt returner in the country, to the defensive backfield, where a pair of promising sophomores likely are to start at cornerback.
One of the most glaring questions surrounding the Tar Heels, though, happens to be at one of the most important areas: offensive line. Asked recently what would define the success of his team, coach Larry Fedora didn’t hesitate.
“I think for us it’s probably going to be how quickly the offensive line gels,” he said at the ACC Kickoff event in Greensboro.
UNC’s line a season ago was enigmatic – strong for stretches and suspect during others and, overall, consistently inconsistent. And that was with James Hurst, a four-year starter at left tackle who was a senior, and Russell Bodine, a dependable center who left school a year early and was selected during the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
The success of the line will be contingent on how well the Tar Heels fill the voids left by Hurst and Bodine, and how quickly younger players, who sometimes struggled last season, improve and mesh. It’s early – UNC has practiced for less than a week – but so far Chris Kapilovic, the offensive line coach, likes what he has seen.
“I’ll say this,” Kapilovic said after a practice this week. “As young and thin as we are, they’re a hard-working group. Maybe one of the hardest-working groups as a whole that I’ve had.
“You know, part of that’s because you’ve got youth, and they just want to be good, and they buy into what you’re putting in. So that’s the foundation.”
UNC’s starting offensive line likely will be among the youngest in the nation when its season starts Aug. 30 against Liberty. Entering preseason practice, the starting five consisted of four sophomores – left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson, center Lucas Crowley and right tackle Jon Heck – and one junior, right guard Landon Turner. There isn’t a senior on the depth chart and of the top 10 linemen, six are either freshman or sophomores.
Turner is, by a wide margin, the most experienced returning offensive lineman, and he has inherited the leadership role. He heard Fedora’s comments during Saturday’s annual media day – that the success of the team will depend on the success of the line – more than once.
“I think he’s absolutely right,” said Turner, who, along with Heck was one of four players who started every game last season. “And that’s every year for us. So it’s not necessarily any more added pressure, because that’s what we expect. We want to be the best group on the field, because it starts up front.
“And I know we’ve taken a lot of steps this past summer, as far as gelling as a unit.”
Kapilovic encouraged those off-the-field activities – “no cliques,” he said – so Turner and the other lineman this summer posted ideas for get-togethers on a board: miniature golf, a cookout, a pool party. They didn’t get to all of them, and Turner lamented that the guys “never got to go fishing.”
But he and Kapilovic believe the linemen became closer, anyway.
“On the field’s important, too, but we have to trust each other,” Turner said. “And I think we’re going to gel pretty fast this year. I’m excited about it.”
Turner, Kapilovic said, is the only member of the line who has secured his place as a starter, though it seems certain that Crowley will start at center and Peterson at left guard. All three, as well as Heck, have played significantly. The greatest question facing the line is who becomes the starting left tackle.
Hurst started there for four years, and likely would have been at least a mid-round selection in the NFL Draft before breaking a leg during the victory in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. To open the season last year, Hurst might have outperformed Jadaveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end who was the first pick in the NFL Draft.
For years, Hurst provided the Tar Heels stability on the left side of the line. Now there’s uncertainty.
Ferranto is atop the depth chart at left tackle for now, and Fedora said he’d been doing a “really good job” during the early part of camp. R.J. Prince, a redshirt freshman, and Bentley Spain, a heralded freshman from Charlotte, are pushing Ferranto for the starting job.
Ferranto this week rejected the thought that the position was his to lose.
“It’s early,” he said. “Coach Kap reminds us every day, it’s a competition. So I focus on every drill – every snap, every rep is just a competition between us, so you’ve got to make sure that you’re doing the things you need to do every play. And there’s no relaxing right now.”
Spain arrived at UNC during January but chest and knee injuries hindered him throughout spring practice, and he’s starting anew – at least physically.
Had he been healthy during the spring, Spain might have emerged the favorite to win the left tackle job. Now, though, it’s unclear how much he might be prepared to contribute – especially early in the season.
“He’s pretty healthy,” Kapilovic said. “So the huge negative is it’s like he just got here. Mentally he’s good, because he was here, but physically he never had the reps this spring to show what he could do.”
Across the line at right tackle, Heck has received raves from Fedora, who recently said Heck was the offensive lineman who improved the most during the offseason. That was news to Heck when told about it this week.
He offered a slight smile and said, “Actually, I hadn’t heard that. But I appreciate that.”
His coaches appreciated Heck’s work in the offseason conditioning program, and his determination to improve after an uneven freshman season. At times, Heck held his own on the right side of line. In other moments, he appeared overwhelmed.
Heck added about 15 pounds of muscle, he said, and he shed bad weight that slowed him down. Overall, UNC’s starting offensive line – at least for players listed atop the depth chart – is on average about nine pounds lighter compared to last season. Heck has gained weight, and his physical transformation has been among the most dramatic on the team.
“I think I’m a completely different player than I was this time last year,” he said.
His optimism mirrored that of his line mates, and of Kapilovic – and it mirrored the kind of optimism in most preseason camps across the country. The time to turn that optimism into reality, though, is quickly approaching, and at UNC no offensive position group faces more uncertainty than the line.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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