North Carolina offensive lineman Bentley Spain is an expert of technique.
Sure, the senior is blessed with size, standing at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He’s endowed with strength, winning a conference championship in discus at Providence High. But the Outland Trophy candidate knows he couldn’t anchor UNC’s offensive line without proper coaching throughout his youth.
“I think all the stars kind of aligned,” Spain said.
One of those stars was Randy Long, the head coach during Spain’s first three years at Providence. Spain said Long showed him the ways of an offensive lineman – the proper footwork and the differences between run and pass blocking. He showed him proper hand placement and “hat placement” – where to put your helmet when blocking. It’s what separates a big lineman from a bruising one.
Spain said most high school linemen likely didn’t have the level of specificity in protection technique as he learned from Long. He says it’s the reason he was able to play at a school such as North Carolina.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how important those little things are,” Spain said. “And luckily, he was able to teach me that.”
Long wasn’t the only influence. Spain was born in Indianapolis but moved a few years later to Charlotte, where he said his coaches in youth sports helped mold him as a player and person. He followed the Carolina Panthers as they succeeded through the 2000s behind their offensive lineman. Jeff Otah, Travelle Wharton, Jordan Gross – he watched them all. It wasn’t just brute strength that set them apart; it was technique.
So Spain set out to emulate them on the field. He helped guide Providence to the state playoffs in 2013, where his team lost to eventual champion Mallard Creek, led by N.C. State commit Jaylen Samuels. He seized a spot in the Shrine Bowl and played in the U.S. Army All-America game, and he even earned Big 22 Player of the Year honors as the top player in Charlotte – though the fans had a say in that one.
“I had a lot of really good friends,” he says with a smile.
As a top-five prospect in the state, Spain drew the attention of the Tar Heels and head coach Larry Fedora, who signed Spain in January 2014 and threw him into action in all 13 games of his true freshman season. He earned the starting left tackle spot as a sophomore and fought off injuries throughout the year. Last season, he played all 13 games and twice graded out as the team’s best offensive lineman.
But this season, his technique will be challenged. The Tar Heels struggled to fill their guard positions last season after first-team All-American guard Landon Turner graduated following the 2015 season. So Fedora tested Spain – one of two returning seniors on the offensive line – at guard during the Tar Heels’ spring game in April.
Spain says it’s not a permanent move, but he admits he doesn’t know where he’ll play along the line in 2017. He said he never played inside at Providence, and he’s been a mainstay at tackle in his time at UNC.
“You have to pull a lot more at guard, so it was something I had to work on, doing the little techniques and angles” he said. “But it’s still O-line play.”
He’s familiar with that – Long made sure of it at Providence. And as an elder statesmen of the offensive line, Spain is making sure his younger teammates are comfortable in their positions, as well.
When the freshman first arrive on campus, Spain molds them off the field as his youth coaches did years ago. Once organized team activities arrive, he focuses on the fundamentals. Hour-long meetings with offensive coordinator and former lineman coach Chris Kapilovic can only do so much for a fresh face, so Spain tries to fill in the gaps.
“Coach Kap does a very good job of teaching the techniques,” Spain said. “So I try to teach it the same way he taught it to me.”
M.J. Stewart, a senior cornerback, has taken notice. He said Spain pulls young players aside after coaching sessions and explains it from a player’s perspective, like a student condensing course material for a classmate.
“I see Bentley doing that and I try to model myself to do that, too,” he said.
Spain’s tutelage is crucial for a UNC offense losing six starters and juggling four potential replacements for departed Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. And it’s only fitting for the Providence graduate to pass down his technical advice to the next wave of North Carolina linemen. After all, he says, he wouldn’t be playing at UNC without it.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart