UNC storylines: Will the offensive line be significantly improved?

UNC's Landon Turner (78) and his teammates celebrate their 45-20 victory over Duke on Thursday, November 19, 2014 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.
UNC's Landon Turner (78) and his teammates celebrate their 45-20 victory over Duke on Thursday, November 19, 2014 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The Tar Heels this season will have the most experienced offensive line in the ACC, and one of the most experienced in the country. All five starters are back, though one – tackle John Ferranto – isn’t likely to start. Combined, UNC’s five returning starters have started 101 games.

That’s a lot, especially when you consider that Syracuse, which will have the next-most experienced offensive line in the ACC, returns a combined 65 starts among its three returning starters. The question, simple enough, is this: Does a lot of returning experience mean that UNC will be really good up front?

That the Tar Heels’ line returns in full is a positive in a lot of ways. It should make for a more cohesive unit and the returnees, in theory, should be better than they were last year. So there’s that.

That said, last year wasn’t a great year for the line – or even a very good one.

If you remember, the Tar Heels’ line was one of the primary questions surrounding the team entering the 2014 season. Coach Larry Fedora said before last season that the offense’s success would depend upon the success of the line and how quickly it came together.

And the line never really did quite come together. Sure, there were some bright spots, such as Landon Turner, the right guard who enters his senior season as an All-American candidate. But there were a lot of growing pains, too. UNC wasn’t great at either tackle position, though Jon Heck showed improvement at right tackle. And the interior of the line, outside of Turner, was underwhelming.

When last we saw UNC’s offensive line, it was part of a mess of an offensive performance – and a mess of an overall performance, really – during a 40-21 defeat against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl. In the game before that, the Tar Heels allowed four sacks and generated just 204 yards in a 35-7 loss against N.C. State in the regular-season finale.

Neither performance created much offseason momentum – if you believe in such a concept – for the line or for any other part of the offense. And they were hardly the only games in which the line play was spotty.

UNC’s running game struggled more often than not in part because of the line’s failure to consistently create space. And the Tar Heels allowed an average of 2.15 sacks per game, which ranked 72nd nationally and 10th in the ACC. The Tar Heels could have, and likely would have, given up more sacks if not for the mobility of quarterback Marquise Williams, who often had to run for his life. Or at least run to keep plays alive.

One reason Williams led UNC in rushing last season was because he so often had to create something out of nothing, in part because of breakdowns in pass protection. Some of the line’s struggles could be attributed to youth and to inexperience. But can we assume the line will be dramatically improved – or even marginally so – simply because everyone is back?

Indeed, Turner, 6-4, 325 pounds, should be among the best interior lineman in the conference, if not nationally. And Bentley Spain, 6-6, 300, who arrived at UNC a heralded recruit, could be an emerging star at left tackle, where he stands a good chance to start over Ferranto, 6-6, 300. At right tackle, Heck, 6-7, 300, is entering his third season as a full-time starter, and center Lucas Crowley, 6-3, 290, will be a full-time starter for the second season.

So there are reasons for optimism. But it’s hardly automatic that “most experienced” will translate into “best” or even “one of the best.” UNC’s offensive line was average, or worse, for long stretches a season ago, and the strength of the line will again be a question entering this season despite the abundance of returning experience.