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UNC mailbag: How is the O-Line, which UNC freshmen do you see contributing most, and your other questions...

North Carolina offensive tackle William Sweet (51) works out with teammates in light rain during the Tar Heels’ first practice of football camp on Friday, August 3, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina offensive tackle William Sweet (51) works out with teammates in light rain during the Tar Heels’ first practice of football camp on Friday, August 3, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

We’re less than a month away from the start of the college football season. On Sept. 1, North Carolina will open up its season on the road against Cal.

The Tar Heels struggled last season with multiple injuries, and limped their way to a 3-9 record. With many returning players, particularly on defense, UNC is hoping this season will be much different. However, it will come with a road block. Thirteen players have been suspended at least one game for selling team-issued sneakers. Coaches were also disciplined.

So naturally you have questions, and I’m here to answer them in this week’s mailbag.

About twice a month I will answer readers’ questions in this mailbag. To submit a questions, tweet me @jonmalexander with the hashtag #AskJMA. If you’re not a Twitter user, shoot me an email at jalexander@newsobserver.com.

Your tweet and question will appear in the story.

Now on to your questions.

@nashman92 asks: Any idea of how the offensive line is coming along?

@jonmalexander says: The offensive line is young, with only one returning starter, but seems to be coming along well. I posed that same question to junior offensive tackle Charlie Heck, the offensive line’s only returning starter. He called the line a “super talented group.”

“They have the talent, they’ve just got to master the plays and know how to work,” he said. “They are doing a great job right now.”

He said he’s confident that the line, with its talent, can get the job done this season. They’ll have to. The offensive line is arguably the most important position on offense.

Everything, from the running game to the passing game, starts up front with the offensive line. If the offensive line can’t protect the quarterback, then it will be impossible for junior quarterback Nathan Elliott, who is on track to start the first game of the season, to be successful. It will be nearly impossible for the running backs, who showed promise last season, to find open holes.

“You can’t do one mistake,” Heck said. “It’s like a dam. One crack, it’s going to burst out. So everybody’s got to be doing their job, and we’re doing a good job right now.”

@Ryan_Cobb asks: Who do you see having a breakout year and a NFL prospect from the football team this year. #AskJMA

@jonmalexander says: I could easily see Anthony Ratliff-Williams having a breakout season for UNC this season. He showed flashes of it last season, particularly on special teams. He had 895 kick return yards and two kick returns for touchdowns last season, which were best in the ACC. He also averaged 26.3 yards per kick return, which was second best in the ACC.

He also had a good year at wide receiver. He had 35 receptions for 630 yards and six touchdowns.

Plain and simple, Ratliff-Williams is a playmaker. Look for UNC find more ways to utilize his talents this year.

This season, he’s a year older, and with higher expectations for himself.

“Just be unstoppable,” he said of his goals. “Just make plays no matter time it is, no matter what play it is, no matter what the occasion is. Always step up for my teammates, and I think I’m ready for that.”

@birds_word asks: Which UNC (basketball) freshmen do you see contributing the most early?

@jonmalexander says: The two guys you have to take a serious look at are freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little. Both were five-start prospects coming out of high school. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans. Both fill voids left by important pieces on the Tar Heels’ team last year in Joel Berry and Theo Pinson.

White, a 6-5, 170 pounds combo guard, is all-out scorer. He can just about do it all. Drive to the basket, hit the outside shot. He broke the North Carolina High School all-time scoring record, and finished his prep career at Greenfield School in Wilson, with 3,573 points.

He is one of three options at starting point guard heading into next season, along with junior Seventh Woods and freshman Rechon Black.

Little, a 6-7, 205-pound wing, though, is who everyone has been talking about recently. He’s projected by some to be a top three pick in next year’s NBA draft. In a recent interview I had with Kenny Williams, Williams said Little is probably the most athletic player he’s ever seen in person. “Ever.”

That’s saying a lot.

Both players could end up starting for UNC next year, and I expect them to play huge roles on the team.

@tatopureoco asks: What are your thoughts on the recently announced NCAA changes regarding high school basketball players allowed to be represented by agents (but only players deemed worthy by a committee)? #AskJMA

@jonmalexander says: First, we must note that this will only happen, if the NBA decides to do away with its rule that prohibits high school players from making the jump straight to the NBA.

It seems great that the NCAA is trying to relax some of its rules that led to the corruption that the FBI is investigating in college basketball. But changes that the Rice Commission announced obviously stopped short of what seems to be the solution that most critics of the NCAA believe should be done. And that’s re-evaluating its amateurism rules.

In regards to the latter part of your question, USA Basketball deciding which high school players are elite, and only those players being able to hire an agent, seems unfair to me. Why should an entity decide which high school players are allowed to be represented by agents. Shouldn’t it be the players’ and their family’s decision? What if that high school player turns out better than they expected?

@tatafreeman asks: How have you enjoyed covering UNC so far? #AskJMA

@jonmalexander says: So far so good. The summer had been a little slow. A lot of people were on vacation, and school was out, but it’s starting to finally pick up.

I’ve met and had lunch and coffee with a lot of good people, reported on a few interesting stories. I also have a few cool stories and videos that will come out within the next couple of months that I think people will enjoy.

And so far the discussions with fans, whether they liked the story or did not like the story, have been productive and thought-provoking. I look forward to more as the season gets going.

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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