CHAPEL HILL Marquise Williams a season ago spent a lot of time on the run, a lot of time scrambling amid pressure behind a North Carolina offensive line that allowed 28 sacks and often created few lanes for the Tar Heels’ running game.
UNC’s offensive line was, at times, a mess – a unit beset by youth, inexperience and injuries. But now? Now there’s optimism and hope for dramatic improvement and perhaps such thoughts aren’t all that unfounded given that every offensive line starter is back from last season.
“It gives me confidence,” Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback from Charlotte, said after practice Monday.
He was talking about how far the offensive line had come since the end of last season, how much better it is and how much better he feels about the guys in front of him – those who are so critical to success for him and the offense.
“I can sit back there and I can relax,” Williams said. “Eat a hot dog, eat a hamburger. … I was planning on bringing one out here.”
Williams smiled at that, pleased by his wit. He found some satisfaction, too, during UNC’s scrimmage Sunday, its first of the preseason. On the first offensive play Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, also from Charlotte, took a handoff and ran about 80 yards for a touchdown.
All told, Williams, said, UNC ran for more than 200 yards. And unlike most of last season, the running backs – not Williams – gained most of the yards.
The Tar Heels don’t lack for supposed talent in the backfield, where Hood and T.J. Logan, a junior, are both former heralded prospects. UNC appears deep at receiver, too, and Williams is the most experienced quarterback in the ACC.
The potential of the offense, though, likely hinges on the performance of the line, which is also the most experienced group in the ACC. UNC’s five returning starting linemen have combined to start 101 college games – the most in the ACC.
But will a wealth of experience automatically equal improvement? Chris Kapilovic, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach, answered the question with a quick “no” Monday.
“It does not automatically mean improvement,” he said. “... It means that I should understand what I’m doing and you get used to working with each other. But if they don’t put the work in and the time in and if I don’t push them as a coach, then they won’t get better.
“So there is no automatic.”
Nonetheless, Kapilovic said, “We have to be better,” and he has good reason to believe the line will be. For one, Landon Turner, who has started the past three seasons at right guard, is expected to be among the best in the nation at his position.
Bentley Spain, the sophomore left tackle from Charlotte, called Turner “the best leader I’ve ever been around,” and Turner on Monday sounded angry, and motivated, about how the offensive line fared toward the end of last season.
UNC allowed four sacks in a lopsided defeat against N.C. State in the regular-season finale, and it got off to a slow start, too, in a loss against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl. Those games, Turner said, “left a bad taste in our mouth.”
“We need to be the rock for this offense,” he said of the improvement he expects. “We’ve got a lot of weapons, but they’re no good if we can’t get them the ball into their hands and open up lanes for them.”
Another reason for optimism is the emergence of Spain. He arrived at UNC in 2014 among the most prized members of his recruiting class, but injuries derailed his freshman season. Now healthy, he’s in line to start at left tackle, supplanting returning starter John Ferranto.
Spain drew Fedora’s praise Monday, as did Tommy Hatton, a freshman whose role could grow given the absence of Jared Cohen, a sophomore who hasn’t reported to preseason practice. Cohen was seen as an up-and-coming lineman and would have entered the season a key reserve, but his return – he left the team for personal reasons – is in doubt.
For the most part, though, the line is surrounded by fewer questions than other positions. Yet the questions that do exist – like how much improvement can be expected given all that returns – will be paramount to the Tar Heels’ success. Or their failure.
Fedora on Monday said the position was “a lot further along right now” than it was this time a year ago.
“And they should be,” he said.
Still, improvement isn’t a given – not with all that went wrong up front last season. Kapilovic acknowledged that the team was “fractured” in 2014 and that some of the division carried over into the offensive line.
He said he has seen increased maturity with increased experience. Learning to respond positively to adversity has been, and will remain, a focus of the preseason.
Williams, the quarterback, likes what he has seen. He hasn’t been bashful about sharing his optimism, either, about the guys protecting him.
“I tell everybody they’re the best in the ACC,” he said. “That’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it – the offensive line is the best in the ACC.”