Even the second string was loaded with talent, including the nation's top-rated defensive end prospect in the '09 recruiting class in Donte Paige-Moss. Four-star freshmen defensive linemen Kareem Martin and Brandon Willis were expected to anchor the third team heading into training camp, but illness, attrition and the NCAA investigation has wreaked havoc on Butch Davis's prized position group.
"It has benefited us enormously in the past to be able to get eight defensive linemen in a game," Davis told reporters during his Monday press conference. "There's been games when we've been able to get nine, sometimes even 10 [in the game]. We don't have that luxury right now."
Willis was the first domino to fall, electing to transfer to UCLA less than two weeks into training camp, and then the enormity of the NCAA investigation came crashing down in Chapel Hill in the days leading up to the season-opening Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against LSU as UNC announced that Quinn, Austin and backup defensive end Michael McAdoo would be on the sidelines for an unknown length of time.
The Tar Heel coaching staff had suspected Austin's eligibility would be in question prior to training camp, so they made contigency plans in early August by moving Coples inside to man the open tackle position alongside Powell, but there was no way for Blake to make the necessary adjustments in the limited amount of time prior to kickoff in Atlanta. And less than 24 hours after the 30-24 loss to the Tigers, Blake resigned and left this position group without a captain to manage the turbulent waters.
Former Buffalo Bills tight end coach Charlie Coiner took over those duties early last week, but the bad news up front continued as North Carolina announced that backup defensive tackle Jared McAdoo was battling mononucleosis, a viral illness known to take long periods of time to recover, forcing offensive guard Greg Elleby to make the transition to defensive tackle.
The end result – if we are in fact at the end – is a defensive line low in numbers and high in inexperience. The current Tar Heel two deep along the line includes three true freshmen, a true sophomore and a walk-on. What was originally thought to be a veteran group now boasts a collective 18 games of starting experience, eight of which have occurred this season.
As a result, Davis's preference to rotate a host of linemen has failed to materialize this season. After only sitting out a handful of plays against LSU, Coples mirrored that effort by playing 67 of 72 snaps against Georgia Tech.
"I get a little tired, but it's all about sucking it up and playing football," Coples said. "I don't let it discourage me or anything, I just go out there and play. When you're out there, you really don't feel it when the ball is snapped. When you get a little break, it will probably hit you. But when the ball is snapped, there's no tiredness anywhere."
Unfortunately, Coples is not alone in having to play a high number of snaps. Powell sat out just five snaps against the Tigers, and didn't fare much better against the Yellow Jackets. This is where the absence of a backup like McAdoo delivers a round of body shots – the red-shirt freshman was expected to provide 8-10 snaps per half on the interior, a blessing for players like Powell and Coples.
But does it at least help having a teammate by your side dealing with the same exact issues?
"No, it doesn't help," Coples said, laughing. "We talk about it all of the time. It doesn't help because we can't take up for each other. We can't say, ‘Well, I'm going to take your [snaps] this time and then you can take mine.' We just go out there and play ball. We know our responsibility and we know how much the team is counting on us to make plays."
But while North Carolina ranks 12th in the ACC in sacks (0.5) and tackles for loss (8), thanks in large part to having a running team like Georgia Tech as one of its two opponents, the defensive line has fought through this adversity as well as can be expected. Martin and Moss have shown flashes of their potential as starters at defensive end, and junior tackle transfer Jordan Nix impressed the coaching staff with his play against the Yellow Jackets.
While Quinn and McAdoo are not able to play on game day, the duo has joined Coples and Powell in mentoring the younger linemen and helping prepare them for the nuances that await on the horizon. That's what teammates do when they know that there is still plenty left to play for this season.
"There are a lot of problems, a lot of issues, a lot of things that are going on," Coples said. "I feel like there are a lot of people trying to bring our team down, but at the end of the day, we're going to stick together and work with what we've got."