North Carolina

Why this group of second-string UNC football players must always be ready

UNC freshman offensive lineman Nick Polino listens to offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic during the Tar Heels’ practice on Aug. 10.
UNC freshman offensive lineman Nick Polino listens to offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic during the Tar Heels’ practice on Aug. 10. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic didn’t think his words would come to fruition so soon.

Days before the Tar Heels’ 47-35 loss to Louisville this past Saturday, redshirt freshman center Jay-Jay McCargo and a couple of other then-second-string offensive linemen went to Kapilovic’s office for a mid-week meeting. Kapilovic said he routinely meets with small groups of players to give them personal attention, and the talk he gave McCargo is a fairly common one for his young, backup offensive linemen.

“Just talking to him about how he needed to practice at a higher level and prepare like he’s a starter,” Kapilovic said. “ ’Cause you never know when your number’s going to be called.”

Kapilovic’s words became prophetic during the game against Louisville, as starting graduate transfer center Cam Dillard went down with an injury.

With that one doomed play, McCargo had to handle his first game-time snap of his collegiate career at center – a position Kapilovic calls “the center of the offense,” because whoever lines up in that position controls the pace of the line.

Kapilovic and head coach Larry Fedora were pleased with McCargo’s performance, but there wasn’t much time to celebrate. The Louisville game thrust UNC’s offensive line into a state of escalated uncertainty.

The Tar Heels’ depth was already on the shallow side, with sophomore offensive guard Tommy Hatton sidelined with a concussion and potential starting lineman Jared Cohen departing during the preseason. But with two more veterans – Dillard and sophomore left guard Nick Polino – injured on Saturday?

“I’m not feeling great about it,” Kapilovic said. “But it is what it is.”

Kapilovic has always emphasized to his athletes that no matter where your name sits on the depth chart, you prepare like a starter. Each offseason, he teaches every lineman except the freshmen multiple positions, so they are prepared to shuffle in the event of a mid-season injury.

Usually, that message take a little longer to ingrain in the freshman, who are juggling the transition from high school star to college backup. But typically, players like McCargo have more time than a game and a half to make that leap.

“It makes you take every situation a lot more seriously,” McCargo said. “ ’Cause knowing that I’m one play away … those middle reps are all that more important. And going home in your free time and studying the playbook and plays and game plan makes it all that more important to you. And you can’t take any days off.”

As the former second-string players adjust on the offensive line, the Tar Heels have to rebound from back-to-back inconsistent performances. On Saturday against Louisville, North Carolina’s run game tallied a meager 17 rushing yards in 23 carries, the lowest total since UNC ran 17 yards against Georgia Tech on Sept. 26, 2009.

The line is instrumental to execution on the ground, and its inexperience adds a degree of instability to a young offense already balancing two quarterbacks: redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt and graduate transfer Brandon Harris.

“We’re a unit,” said graduate transfer left guard Khaliel Rodgers, who was told last week that he too would make the switch to starter to fill in for Polino. “And at the end of the day, if one person goes down or a few people go down, we’re going to come out strong and always prepare.”

UNC plays Saturday at Old Dominion (2-0) – a Conference USA school not nearly as fierce as Louisville or even Cal – giving UNC a chance to dig itself out of the 0-2 hole. For the offensive line, preparation includes building chemistry, honing technique, nailing the basics of blocking and emphasizing physicality.

Meanwhile, every lineman on the roster must be on guard.

“It’s something that I preach all the time, that you can’t ever prepare like you’re a backup,” Kapilovic said. “You gotta prepare like you’re a starter, because you are. You’re one snap away from being the guy.”

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