It took linebacker Jeff Schoettmer all of about a half of a second to come up with the main reason for the improvement of the North Carolina offense in recent weeks, the reason the Tar Heels have transformed themselves.
Was it because of the emergence of Marquise Williams, the quarterback who has earned ACC Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks? The semblance of a running game? Schoettmer thought deeper – or at least bigger, in a literal sense.
“Landon Turner and Jon Heck are back,” he said when asked if he’d noticed anything different in practice, going against the offense. “That’s huge. Two of our most experienced linemen – they’re back and playing extremely well.
“So I think that’s huge for us. That really helps the running game get going.”
Turner, a junior right guard, missed two games with a knee injury. Heck, a sophomore right tackle, missed two games – one overlapping the time Turner missed – with an ankle injury.
Not coincidentally, the line faltered while relying on younger, inexperienced players. But now? Now UNC’s line appears formidable. In a span of a few weeks it has gone from a team weakness to something of a strength.
“I said that was the area that we were going to have to grow and jell together as we went,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “And then with the injuries that we had it kind of threw us a little bit farther behind. But I think you’ve seen in the last couple weeks those guys get better.
“There’s been a definite difference in the way they’ve played.”
Before the season Fedora said the success of the line – how quickly it came together after losing two starters from a season ago – would define the success of the season. When the offensive line performed poorly early on, it wasn’t too surprising to see the rest of the offense falter.
In the past two games, though, the Tar Heels have had the starting five on the offensive line they expected to have during the preseason. That group includes Caleb Peterson, the left guard who was injured throughout preseason practice.
“It’s a good feeling, there’s no doubt about it,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said Tuesday. “You know, I think we’re finally getting closer to 100 percent health-wise, which is good. And like I’ve said, when all the pieces are there I just think it breeds more confidence among all the guys.”
Kapilovic has had difficulty at times this season, trying to sort through a pile of injured players to make something work. There were times he had to throw together a piecemeal bunch comprised of freshmen and backups.
Chemistry was never the issue up front, Turner said. The guys are close. Sometimes, they all head over to sophomore left tackle John Ferranto’s place for spaghetti his mom made.
“Real authentic good stuff,” Turner said with a smile.
On the field, though, developing chemistry was another issue with all the time various players missed. Now, for the first time, UNC’s line is healthy and developing, and the results have showed.
In the defeat at Notre Dame two weeks ago, the Tar Heels gained 510 yards and averaged 6.07 yards per play. In the victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday, they gained 579 yards and averaged 6.58 yards per play – both season highs.
During the past two weeks, with its offensive line at full strength, UNC has allowed but one sack and has averaged 186.5 yards rushing – nearly 50 yards more per game than it had averaged before those two games. Asked how much better the line could become, how far it still has to go, Turner became philosophical.
“Well, you can never get there,” he said.
Even so, the Tar Heels are a lot closer to “there” – wherever it might be – than they were two weeks ago.