Trench Warfare

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Usually the spring game is all about how many completions out of how many attempts the quarterbacks threw for, how many yards rushing the backs had, how the receivers did, or which defenders really stood out. This spring game was different; it was all about the trenches.

"We've got some horses up there (on the offensive line) who feel like they can't be stopped," Ryan Houston said following the game.

Head coach Butch Davis acknowledged in his postgame press conference that UNC's offensive and defensive lines are the strength of the 2011 team. Maybe that's not so unusual to hear about the defensive line, but the offensive line?

"If there are any highlights from spring, clearly one of them has got to be the improvement and development of the offensive line," Davis said. "I think it has the chance to be one of the strongest units on our football team. It has taken several recruiting classes to build that kind of talented players and depth on the (offensive line) at the same time."

Without a pause, however, Davis acknowledged that a strong defensive line will again be one of UNC's calling cards.

"I think the defensive line, on the flip side, is going to be the strongest area of our defense."

The spring game was a debut of sorts for all sorts of skill players – from Bryn Renner as "The Guy" at quarterback to Sean Tapley and Reggie Wilkins getting their feet wet at wide receiver to the young defensive secondary making some plays, but the 2011 team is going to go only as far as the big guys up front – on both sides of the ball – can take them. Which unit is currently out-dueling its counterpart?

The defensive line may still hold the edge overall, at least according to end Quinton Coples.

"They are tired of hearing the defense talk and just talking smack to them," Coples said. "They've stepped and said, ‘We're just as good and we're going to show you.' They do put up a fight, but overall, the defensive line is still dominant."

The defensive line should be better than the offensive line. On Saturday, Sylvester Williams showed he is as good as advertised; he was frequently disruptive. Quinton Coples has been named by some outlets already as a preseason first-team All-American. Donte Paige-Moss and Tydreke Powell are top tier players at their positions in the ACC and future NFL draft choices. Jordan Nix, Tim Jackson, Kareem Martin and Jared McAdoo have all started games – it's a deep, experienced and talented group.

That depth – and breadth – will make it hard for opponents to concentrate on any particular defensive lineman.

"They can't just gameplan against me, or game plan against Donte, or 'Dreke, or Jordan, or anybody," Coples said. "That gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you're going to have to block us one-on-one, and may the best man win.'"

As good as the defensive line at UNC is, and has been for several years, the offensive line is building its own identity. Their names are becoming a little easier to recognize and they are beginning to work on their own legacies.

"When you've got those studs up front," Renner said, "James Hurst, (Jonathan) Cooper, when you've got Cam Holland and Travis Bond and Brennan Williams, those are five guys that are amazing to block in front of you."

Perhaps the diehard UNC football fan who has craved the type of line Renner, Houston, Coples and Davis describe will find it difficult to buy-in to the optimism on the front five. A couple of years ago it took a lot of work for UNC's quarterbacks and skill players to rack up the type of stats that are the typical focus of spring games.

As a young quarterback, some young receivers, a mostly unknown – except for Houston – group of running backs and a whole new slate of tight ends begin to make their marks as Tar Heels next fall, they should find the sledding a little easier behind an improved UNC line.

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