UNC's Elleby moves to fill void

Junior switches sides in order to fill a void along UNC's beleaguered offensive line

Staff WriterOctober 8, 2009 

— A year ago, North Carolina's Greg Elleby was chasing down quarterbacks as a defensive end.

The fact that he's now protecting signal callers -- as a starter on the Tar Heels' offensive line -- still makes him grin and shake his head.

"I never thought I'd be playing this much this early in the season; I expected [it] maybe later in the year, or if we were winning by a lot," said Elleby, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound junior from Tabor City. "I never thought it would come this quick, but it came. ... And I'm just doing my best to learn more every day."

Elleby's move into a starting offensive role a mere six months after changing sides of the line is a testament to his focused study and natural instincts -- and to UNC's desperation up front.

The Tar Heels (3-2) knew they were going to be thin along the O-line this season, what with three starters graduating, including left guard Aaron Stahl, who opted to leave with a year of eligibility remaining. That's why coach Butch Davis approached Elleby after the second day of spring practice about making the switch.

"We had depth on the defensive line, and we felt like Greg had the feet and the long arms and the ability, and he had two years to work on it," Davis said. "We knew it wasn't going to be a super-easy transition, but we thought if he got some opportunities in the springtime and during training camp that he could grow and develop as an offensive lineman."

Then, the decimation continued.

During training camp, the Tar Heels lost reserve lineman Kevin Bryant, who was charged with misdemeanor assault of a female and decided not to return to the program; and tackle Carl Gaskins, who tore a knee ligament and is out for the season.

After the season-opener, Jonathan Cooper, who was Stahl's replacement, sprained his ankle -- pushing Elleby into a starting role. The following week, starting center Lowell Dyer strained a muscle in his shoulder, further depleting UNC's experience up front. Dyer will probably miss his fourth straight game this weekend, while Cooper remains limited.

And just as Elleby was starting to get used to the techniques of playing guard, he may have to shift to left tackle for Saturday's game against Georgia Southern if Kyle Jolly, who sprained his ankle against Virginia, isn't ready to go full throttle. Davis said Wednesday he did not know whether Jolly would be ready.

"There's been a lot to learn, and fast," said Elleby, who played on the defensive line throughout high school and posted six tackles for UNC as a sophomore. "I'm working on my technique every day, my pass blocking, learning new plays -- there's not anything I don't have to work on every day.

While coaches have seen steady improvement in the junior -- and are thankful they had the foresight to make the switch -- they say they wish they could have brought him along a bit more slowly.

"And without having to go back and forth, learning guard and tackle," said offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who thinks Elleby is only going to get better and better.

But with all of the injuries -- and two straight ACC losses -- Elleby and the rest of the offensive linemen are under pressure to help bolster an anemic attack has scored just 10 points and rushed for only 56 yards its past two games, both losses.

"It has been tough, losing so many guys," Elleby said. "But I know I just have to keep working, keep proving myself, keep taking advantage of the opportunity."

And keep trying to hone the instinct of protecting, rather than rushing, the quarterback.

"That's been an adjustment, but now, I really love it," he said of playing on offense. "When I was on D-line, I was ready to run through the offensive line. But now I see how the O-linemen have great technique, and I really respect it and applaud it."

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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