Charlie Heck doesn’t even know how it actually happened. Or when. Just that he broke his right hand on the first series of North Carolina’s game against Wake Forest on Sept. 13.
But when he walked off the field after that first drive, he immediately knew something was wrong.
Heck, the Tar Heels’ 6-8, 310-pound starting left tackle, played through the pain. And at halftime got his hand checked, only to get confirmation that it was a break.
The Tar Heels’ offensive line struggled without him against the Mountaineers. It gave up three sacks, including a strip sack that led to a defensive touchdown. App State’s Demetrius Taylor came off the left edge untouched, and stripped UNC quarterback Sam Howell from behind. Taylor picked up the fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. The Tar Heels lost 34-31.
“That play is not an issue if Charlie is in there,” UNC coach Mack Brown told reporters last Wednesday.
One of the best games of his career
The following week, UNC played No. 1 Clemson and Heck wanted get back on the field. Doctors told Heck he could play without causing any further damage to his hand, Brown said in a press conference on Monday. It was just a matter of whether Heck could tolerate the pain, and whether he wanted to play with the injury.
Without Heck, UNC would have started three sophomores and two freshmen on the offensive line against the Tigers. But Heck returned to the field last Saturday wearing a cast that looked like a lobster claw.
UNC’s offensive line gave up three sacks, but against Clemson, it was a job well done. The Tar Heels nearly pulled off the upset, but lost 21-20 at home.
“I think those guys in that room look up to him,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said Monday. “He was as much of a presence there on the sideline as he was a player. He was a benefit two-fold. Those guys were glad just to have him back and to have his leadership back, and then he was productive on the field for us.”
According to Pro Football Focus, an advanced analytic site, Heck had one of the best games of his career against Clemson.
He had a career-best 89.9 pass-blocking grade, and played all 65 offensive snaps.
“He’s a tough sucker,” Brown said Monday.
Staying healthy is important
Heck, who is expected to be picked in the 2020 NFL draft, said sitting out the rest of the season was never a question for him.
“This team wants to win so bad, and there’s so much fight in this team,” Heck said on Tuesday. “And I want to be part of the team that turns around Carolina football in the direction that it should be.
“Missing one game was hard enough for me and I didn’t want to go through that experience again.”
Heck expects to play the rest of the season. The recovery process is expected to take about a month, he said.
Heck’s return is important for UNC for multiple reasons. As the only senior, he’s the leader of the offensive line and its best player. He brings consistency and a cohesion up front. He’s also responsible for protecting Howell’s blindside.
Keeping Howell healthy is important. UNC’s backup quarterback, Jace Ruder, is out indefinitely with a lower body injury. Behind Howell is walk-on freshman Vincent Amendola, who arrived at UNC in the fall.
“I’m glad I have him at left tackle,” Howell said. “I really don’t have to worry about anything coming off the edge to my left.”
Longo said with Heck back, for the first time all season he saw an offensive line that looked in unison, adding that he was optimistic about what that could do for the offense moving forward.
“I think we’re ready to take another step offensively,” Longo said. “And I think it’s going to open up some things for our skill players.”
UNC at Georgia Tech
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
Watch: ACC Network
Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte