During a recent meeting with the offensive linemen he coaches at North Carolina, Chris Kapilovic described the importance of their role in the simplest of terms: Miss a block, he told them, and the mistake could carry dire consequences.
“You miss a block, your quarterback could be in the hospital that day,” Kapilovic said he told his players.
So while he has continued to evaluate the ongoing competition for starting right tackle, Kapilovic has often thought about that – about which player is least vulnerable to mistakes. Kapilovic isn’t looking for Superman, he said recently.
He has been trying, in his words, to identify the one player who is “not going to get us killed.” So far, that has been an arduous task. The Tar Heels finished preseason camp Monday, and the right tackle position remains the most unsettled on the team.
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Second-year head coach Larry Fedora said it is the only starting position that is still undecided.
“Nobody has separated themselves,” Fedora said. “And so we still keep going until somebody separates. You all know we’re going to put somebody out there on the 29th (in the season opener at South Carolina). And right now it’s still up in the air who’s it going to be.”
UNC held its final scrimmage of the preseason Saturday and Kapilovic said late last week he anticipated deciding on a starter at right tackle. Throughout the preseason, four players have received work with the first team: Nick Appel, Kiaro Holts, Jon Heck and John Ferranto.
If the season began today, Kapilovic said, Heck, a redshirt freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., would start. Heck is the son of Andy Heck, an NFL veteran and the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line coach. The elder Heck was an All-American offensive tackle at Notre Dame and played on its 1988 national championship team.
“That really helped me,” Jon Heck said of his pedigree. “That’s really what got me into football and certainly what got me into the offensive line. Ever since I was a kid, my dad was teaching me footwork and offensive line technique. I’ve been watching film with him for years.”
Those father-son film sessions paid off. Kapilovic cited Heck’s understanding of the game as the primary reason why he has emerged as the favorite to earn the permanent starting position at right tackle. That, and his size.
“He’s a big man,” Kapilovic said. “He’s 6-8, he’s 300-something. He’s long. It’s hard for those guys to get around him. That’s an advantage. Now what he has to do is he has to just continue to work on his feet and playing with a mentality of finishing, not just doing his job.”
Around a year ago at this time, Kapilovic spent most of his time teaching UNC’s offensive line about the proper speed of Fedora’s spread offense. The position didn’t lack for experience last season, but the Tar Heels’ line, like the rest of the offense, had never practiced and played at the kind of fast pace Fedora demands.
Throughout the preseason, Kapilovic has spent less time teaching speed, but more time searching for consistency and proper execution. That’s not a surprise, given that three of UNC’s starting linemen last season became NFL draft picks.
Replacements have been easy enough to identify at left guard and right guard. But right tackle has remained an enigma. Kapilovic said the coaching staff’s hope had been that Holts, a sophomore who was a decorated recruit when he arrived at UNC, would emerge as the starter.
Injuries, though, have derailed Holts’ progress. Only recently has he has he been healthy enough to practice in full.
“(It’s) hard,” Holts said last week of his inability to stay on the practice field. “Because I’m basically not in practice, not getting better. Then they’re getting better and moving up. But I’m coming back.”
During the scrimmage Saturday, Heck, Appel and Holts received work with the first-team offense. Along with Ferranto, those players have rotated in and out throughout the preseason, while Kapilovic and Fedora have waited for someone – anyone – to take control of the position.
Now time is running short. UNC began installing its game plan for South Carolina. The scout team wore garnet jerseys during practice – a visual signal that real competition isn’t too far away.
At one position, at least, UNC still has a ways to go before finding clarity. Preseason camp ended but at right tackle the competition continues, and could for a while.
“(We’re) looking for somebody to separate,” Fedora said. “Somebody to separate from the others and decide they really want it, and they want that position. … They’ve got to show us.”