"I think our offensive line, when you look at us going into this spring, in my mind, is the strength of our team," Shoop said.
It is hard not to be optimistic, at least from a talent and experience standpoint. James Hurst came in last year as a five-star recruit and more than held his own as a true freshman at left tackle. Next to him is Jonathan Cooper, a second-team All-ACC guard last season, who has 25 starts at UNC. Cam Holland has 17 starts at center. He was thrust into action as a sophomore in 2009 when Lowell Dyer was injured, struggled at times, then came on last year in the off-season to lock down the starting spot.
At right guard and right tackle Travis Bond and Brennan Williams are penciled in as starters, both of whom were highly recruited, have started games, and have taken a high number of snaps as reserves.
"Coach Pitt (offensive line coach Sam Pittman) has done a great job in recruiting," Shoop says. "It's taking us a little bit of time, but I think we've got more depth and more talent in the O-line position than we've had since I've been here. And, that's a good place to start."
Especially through the first half of the season it was not unusual for the Tar Heels to play eight or nine offensive linemen, something done intentionally to help build depth during the season. The Tar Heels have had a recent history of losing offensive linemen to injury, and the staff prepared early on by giving reserves substantial numbers of snaps. That preparation should pay dividends in 2011.
"We're returning a bunch of offensive linemen that have played some football," Shoop said. "Especially at that position, experience is critical. These guys understand and have a good chemistry. Last year we played a lot of offensive linemen as well so we developed some depth."
One of Shoop's themes this off-season seems to be persuading his players to work on developing themselves for the long haul of a 12 game regular season schedule.
"I think these guys understand that the most underrated quality in a football player, in any football player, is endurance and durability," Shoop said. "These guys are getting their minds, their bodies, ready for a long season.
"They're doing a lot of the work right now. You see them changing their bodies. You see them in shape year-round. You see them out here doing some of the mat drills that we're doing out there now. The way that they can move at 310, 320 pounds, it's exciting. It's a good place to start."
The impact of the offensive line on the entire offense certainly isn't lost on Shoop, particularly how his inexperienced corps at quarterback might benefit.
"Bryn, or A.J., or Braden, or ‘Quis, the quarterbacks know that this is an advantage that maybe we haven't had in the past," Shoop said. "I think that's the strength of our offense – those guys and the chemistry that they have, grit and toughness that they have, that's a real strength and we're sure going to lean on that."
You get the sense from Shoop that he at least believes, and his offensive linemen believe, their time has come.
"They know; they're ready to take a strong leadership role in this offense," Shoop said. "We're going to need it because we've got some skilled guys that are going to be new and we're going to lean on them, for sure."
Tar Heels fans have every right to be cautious and take a "wait and see" approach, but the factors Shoop pointed out are solid reasons to be optimistic this spring.
(Check back tomorrow for Part IV)