UNC offensive line key to successful 2014 season
When asked what would most determine North Carolina’s success this season, coach Larry Fedora pointed to how quickly the offensive line gels.
After all, that unit’s stuggles when it had to replace three NFL draft picks was a big reason why UNC started 1-5 last season.
“(Last year) we had two or three really good linemen, but we had one or two that weren’t ready yet, and that will kill you,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. “It’s like a hole in the dam — it’s going to leak through. The cohesiveness is critical and they have to get a rhythm of playing together.”
The Tar Heels once again must replace multiple pros — four-year starter James Hurst at left tackle and fourth-round draft pick Russell Bodine at center. But despite a young core — junior right guard Landon Turner is the only upperclassman expected to start — UNC is hopeful that this group is prepared to meet the challenge.
“As young and thin as we are, they may be one of the most hard-working groups that I’ve had,” Kapilovic said. “That’s the foundation. If I have a bunch of guys who will work hard, we’ve got a chance. Now, our football IQs are young so there’s a lot of teaching, a lot of reps.”
Sophomore Lucas Crowley has worked with the first team at center so far — he started against all-America defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Pittsburgh when Bodine missed a game last year — while left tackle is a battle between sophomore frontrunner John Ferranto, early enrollee Bentley Spain and redshirt freshman R.J. Prince.
“Every day is a competition — every drill is a competition,” Ferranto said. “You can’t relax at all. It’s fun.”
The group has scheduled outings such as mini golf, a BBQ and a pool party to foster chemistry. Turner, whose 17 career starts are the most of anyone in the group, has also accepted a leadership role.
“Right after the Belk Bowl is dawned on me pretty fast that Russell and James were leaving and I’m the oldest one here, but it doesn’t necessarily faze me because this is my fourth year,” Turner said. “I’m a midyear enrollee — I will almost say that I feel like a senior intellectually even though I know I’m a junior football-wise. I’ve been honored and humbled by the opportunity to step up as a leader of the offensive line.”
There have been signs of progress. Fedora said that left guard Caleb Peterson is “100 percent” after offseason shoulder surgery, while right tackle Jon Heck had the best summer of any offensive lineman because of his improved physique and mobility.
Turner, Peterson and Heck combined to make 37 of 39 starts last season. Still, it will take time to merge two new starters on the outside, a problem exacerbated by UNC’s no-huddle offensive system.
“It’s more difficult for those guys because they’ve got to process very quickly,” Fedora said. “There’s no going back to the huddle, holding hands, hearing the play, walking up to the line of scrimmage, processing all of that and what you need to do. You’re asking them to do it in a matter of about 10 seconds and then be able to adjust when the defense adjusts on them. And then all five of them have to be on the same page when they make that adjustment.”
How quickly that happens will help determine whether UNC wins the Coastal Division or is out of the race at the halfway point for the second straight season.
“At every level of football, a big part of the success is how well the offensive line merges together,” Ferranto said. “Because we’re young, there’s a lot of pressure on us.”
THORPE OUT AGAIN
Jordan High School graduate T.J. Thorpe wasn’t at practice Tuesday amid reports that he reinjured his left foot.
The junior wide receiver first broke the fifth metatarsal bone of left foot on the third day of training camp in 2012, forcing him to sit out the season, and then cracked the bone again during winter conditioning in 2013, forcing him to miss spring camp.
Thorpe was listed as a starter at both wide receiver and kickoff return heading into training camp. He led the ACC in kickoff return average (26.7) as a freshman and caught 24 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.
Fedora does not discuss injuries and did not shed any light on Thorpe’s absence Tuesday. However, he did say he was concerned about the mental state of any player who must come back from multiple injuries.
“You know you’ve got a problem physically, but the mental part of overcoming those things is extremely difficult for any player,” Fedora said. “And I don’t care if you’re in the NFL or Pee-Wee ball or whatever you are. When you get hurt and you can’t go and you’re standing on the sideline and you’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, it’s going to be disappointing.”
Thorpe was not available for comment. Last year, he said that it took time to trust his foot again after getting injured twice on routine maneuvers.
“At first it’s, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to do too much,’” Thorpe said. “But when you start playing it’s, ‘I don’t want to get embarrassed, I don’t want to mess anything up,’ so you just kind of forget about it.”
Follow Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.