North Carolina graduate transfer center Cam Dillard and senior offensive tackle Bentley Spain are playing through pain.
At a recent practice, white athletic tape was around their hands and Dillard’s ankle, remnants of early-season injuries. Spain broke his hand before the start of the season, and Dillard sprained his ankle against Louisville on Sept. 9. The pair are part of a long list of UNC players who have been injured this season.
UNC’s injury count this season has reached an unprecedented extremity, with more than a dozen players listed as out for the season. That list includes three offensive linemen: sophomore Tommy Hatton (concussion), redshirt freshman Luke Elder (undisclosed) and sophomore William Sweet (undisclosed).
“It’s something that happens to every team every year … you have to learn to play through some pain, but that’s kind of the reality of it,” Spain, who missed the first two games of the season, said of his injury.
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The cornerstone of the offensive line is team chemistry, but UNC’s line has rarely had a chance to build any. Offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said injuries have kept the offensive line from being able to practice with all of the starters. And because of the lack of depth, recovering players like Dillard, who missed one game, and Spain, who missed the first two games of the season, can’t take time off to recover.
Kapilovic is making the best of it by having players run mental reps and walk-through plays, but he’s struggled to establish continuity. But despite the growing list of players sidelined for the season, the Tar Heels (1-7, 0-5 ACC) are not allowing excuses.
“No matter who’s out there, who’s hurt, it’s still our responsibility to get it done,” Kapilovic said.
UNC’s 59-7 loss to Virginia Tech last Saturday was a new low for the Tar Heels’ offensive line, as it allowed the Hokies to make six sacks. Early in the game, Virginia Tech pressured UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt into fumbling, and the Hokies returned it 12 yards for a touchdown.
The loss marked the most sacks UNC allowed this season. It was also the second time North Carolina allowed more than two sacks in a game (the Tar Heels gave up four in a 27-17 loss to Duke on Sept. 23).
Under pressure from the Hokies’ defense, the offense fell flat, tallying 54 rushing yards, going 3-of-17 in third-down conversions and forfeiting two interceptions from quarterback Brandon Harris. UNC rotated three quarterbacks – Surratt, Harris and Nathan Elliot.
“It definitely helped that (the Hokies) came out and they were a little more fresh,” Dillard said.
Kapilovic is targeting what he considers sloppiness. North Carolina gave up 14 penalties for 100 yards on Saturday. He’s working to eliminate those errors on offense, and to make sure the players focus on execution – on ensuring players focus only on their job.
Going into its game against Miami (6-0, 4-0) on Saturday, UNC’s offensive line will face a defense of veterans who have only improved since the Tar Heels defeated the Hurricanes 20-13 last season.
Spain has been able to rely on film and memory of last year’s game to predict what Miami’s defense will be like. But against an inexperienced Tar Heels line that has been tormented with injuries, the veteran Miami defense will have an undoubted edge.
Dillard said the line must focus on perseverance. But finding a formula to fix the offensive woes has left Kapilovic with more questions than answers.
“It’s sad because early in the season you felt like you were doing some decent things and making some progress,” Kapilovic said. “And we’ve just gone backwards.”
Miami at UNC
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill