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UNC offensive line on mend amid injuries, attrition

Landon Turner, a senior offensive guard, has been forced to practice at center because of the injury situation on UNC’s offensive line.
Landon Turner, a senior offensive guard, has been forced to practice at center because of the injury situation on UNC’s offensive line. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

All those returnees and all those expectations that things would be better this season, and then came attrition and injuries and, with it, a sense of … what’s the word?

“The one word for it,” said Landon Turner, the senior offensive lineman at North Carolina, “would just be frustrating.”

He was talking about how in a span of a couple of weeks the Tar Heels’ offensive line went from the most experienced, stable position on the team to one in disarray – a unit beset by the absence of one player, Jared Cohen, and by injuries to others.

“You’ve got guys going down,” said Turner, the left guard who has appeared on many preseason All-American teams. “It’s like, no, man. We can’t have this. We were so set up to do so well. But like I said – things weren’t as bad as they could have been.”

There is that. Even though Turner recently practiced at center – a position he hasn’t played since high school – it could be worse.

The good news for the UNC offensive line, after all, is this: It’s on the mend. It’s healing.

For a while the situation was approaching dire. For one, Cohen, a sophomore guard who would have entered the season as an up-and-coming backup, left the team before the start of preseason practice. He hasn’t returned and there’s no indication he will this season.

Then Lucas Crowley, the starting center, suffered an injury that knocked him out of practice. His backup, Tommy Hatton, became hurt, too. UNC also lost another interior lineman when Will Dancy, who started two games last season and played in 10, was lost for the season with a left Achilles injury.

So to recap UNC at one point was down two centers and two guards. Which should now make it clear why Turner, who, again, hasn’t played center in a game since high school, was taking snaps there recently.

“I wouldn’t be scared to get in at center,” Turner said Tuesday. “I’m definitely confident in my ability to do it. I’ve gotten enough reps here.”

Which is a good thing because if the season started tomorrow, there’s a real possibility that Turner might be at center. Asked if that’d be the case, Chris Kapilovic, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach, paused, said it was a good question and acknowledged that it’d be “close.”

But the season doesn’t start until Sept. 3 – Thursday, if you’re keeping track – and there’s enough time, Kapilovic said, sounding hopeful, for Crowley and Hatton to heal. If he’s well enough, Crowley will start. And if he starts, then UNC’s line – the starters, at least – would look like it was expected to look entering the season.

But what a journey to reach that point.

“All of a sudden we got some bad luck, and boy it just kind of carried on there for a good 10-day stretch,” Kapilovic said. “And I say this a bunch, but the positive to it is that we’ve built depth by having guys play multiple roles.”

Injuries and attrition haven’t really affected the outside of the line. Bentley Spain, the sophomore and former heralded recruit, is still the starter at left tackle. And Jon Heck, a junior, is still the guy at right tackle.

The middle of the line, though, has been something of a work in progress, with one player missing, one lost for the season because of injury and two others continuing to heal. And now there’s less than a week until the season begins.

“If I had my way, ideally, we didn’t want to lose those guys, ever,” Turner said. “But fortunately the injuries are minor enough that they’re already back working into practice, and we’ve got our starting line back and people are healthy again.

“The positive from it – the silver lining – would be that I got to work at center in a live environment. … If something goes wrong, we’re more prepared. I think our depth has got that much stronger just because of it.”

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