UNC football: Rebuilding offensive line a work in progress

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 6, 2013 

— The North Carolina offensive line lost three starters from a season ago, three guys who became NFL draft picks, and so James Hurst knew it would be important to build a new sense of camaraderie and unity with those who were returning. What better way to do it than with a breakfast club?

That’s how Hurst, the Tar Heels’ senior left tackle, described it recently: “An o-line breakfast club.”

The UNC offensive linemen, just about all of them 300 pounds or heavier, would gather on Wednesday mornings. And then they’d eat and watch film and eat some more.

“It was really nice,” Hurst said. “We’d take turns buying a bunch of food. We ordered, like, 36 sausage biscuits one morning from McDonald’s. Which, (the worker’s) face, when you say that, was really interesting. Probably should have called ahead, in hindsight. But we didn’t.”

The UNC Offensive Line Breakfast Club is now a thing of the past. It served its purpose in the spring and early summer, when a new unit was still adapting to losing so much of its old identity. These days, the chemistry-building sessions come on the practice fields and in meeting rooms.

Hurst understands the preseason will come and go quickly. And then it will be here: UNC’s Aug. 29 season-opener at South Carolina, which likely boasts the meanest, best defensive line the Tar Heels will face all season.

The questions that surround the UNC offensive line are many: Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine are back, but how do the Tar Heels go about replacing Jonathan Cooper, the All-American left guard who was perhaps the best lineman in school history? Can Kiaro Holts emerge at right tackle? Can this rebuilt group be nearly as effective as a season ago, when it allowed just 11 sacks and opened holes for a running game that averaged 193.4 yards?

“They’re absolutely fair,” Hurst said of the questions. “Three guys got drafted from our line last year. And we’ve got really two untested guys coming onto the line. You’re expecting those questions all the time. We’ll surprise people.

“We think that we’ve got the guys we need to be a successful offensive line. So I know those guys are wanting to get out there and prove it, just like I am. They know it’s going to be a challenge, and I think they know that people are going to be coming after our line because it’s really the untested portion of our offense.”

Coach Larry Fedora admitted a couple weeks ago that concerns about the offensive line – and the defensive line, for that matter – keep him awake at night, worrying. Chris Kapilovic, though, has likely experienced more stress.

Kapilovic, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach, didn’t exactly have it easy last summer. He was part of teaching a new scheme at a faster pace, but his students were experienced – all with high football IQs.

Now he’s having to teach things he didn’t have to worry about last year. And all those questions? He’s the one in charge of putting UNC in the best position to produce positive answers.

The left side of the line, so far, hasn’t been a concern, Kapilovic said. Hurst is among the best left tackles in the nation and, beside him, redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson has done an admirable job of replacing Cooper. The right side, though, is cause for concern – especially on the outside.

By now Kapilovic was hoping that Holts, a sophomore, would have taken hold of the starting position at right tackle. But the position remains in flux. Kapilovic said four players have received time with the first team in camp.

“And really, I’m not looking for Superman,” Kapilovic said. “But (someone) that’s not going to get us killed on one snap every five or six.”

UNC never had to worry about that last season. Perhaps lost amid UNC’s gaudy statistics was the performance of players whose contributions aren’t best measured in yards or touchdowns.

When UNC struggled early last season to grasp the tempo, it was the offensive line that pushed the rest of the team. The guys up front, Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner said, did the best job setting the tempo.

“They really carried this offense to a new level,” Renner said.

All was not lost. Renner said Bodine was most instrumental in setting the fast pace last season, and Hurst has emerged as the vocal leader.

Peterson, the redshirt freshman left guard, plays between Hurst and Bodine. They’ve been instrumental to Peterson’s development, and so too has Cooper, who served as a mentor to Peterson last year and still keeps in touch with encouraging text messages.

“There’s a lot of pressure, and there’s a lot to live up to, because he’s quite possibly the best offensive lineman to ever play here,” Peterson said. “But the thing that really helps with the pressure and the big shoes to fill is that when Coop was here, he knew he was going to be leaving so he tried to prep us, and he really did a good job.”

Kapilovic and Fedora have talked to Peterson about this, though. They don’t want him to try to be Cooper.

“We expect you to be Peterson,” Fedora said earlier this week, reciting a conversation he’d shared with Peterson. “Know what to do. Do it to the best of your ability. And we understand he’s a redshirt freshman – there may be some mistakes here and there. But that’s all right.”

There were few mistakes a season ago, when UNC’s line was among the best in the nation. Now, though, it’s a group that might require some patience. Hurst and his teammates are aware the days are running out before the first, and most difficult, test of the season.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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