Trench Equality

PINEHURST, N.C. – Ever since Butch Davis arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina's defensive linemen have made a habit out of telling the media how they consistently win the trench war with their offensive line counterparts in practice. But while those comments have been true in the past, they may not be anymore.

Davis has coached six defensive line NFL draft picks during his four seasons at UNC and that number is likely to increase next April. Senior defensive end Quinton Coples is projected as a first-rounder after earning first-team All-ACC honors at defensive tackle last season, while junior defensive end Donte Paige-Moss and senior defensive tackle Tydreke Powell have the potential to play their way in the draft's opening day with a solid 2011 campaign.

Coples and Paige-Moss are both on the Bednarik and Nagurski Award watch lists, while Powell was named to the Outland Trophy watch list as well as joining his teammates on the Nagurski list.

So while the defensive line has shown little interest in removing its perennial tag as one of the ACC's top units, the offensive line has had little choice but to up their efforts in leveling the playing field in practice.

"I'd like to believe that it's never been that far apart," junior left guard Jonathan Cooper told reporters during the ACC Football Kickoff media event on Sunday. "Maybe a while ago in the past, but I feel like we've always had the talent to compete with them and we have competed with them. It's just been one-sided in attention received, but I feel like now it has leveled out and people are starting to see that we do have the talent and the potential to compete with that great defense and have the ability to make a name for ourselves."

Those "people" start at the top of the North Carolina football program. For the first time in four years, the defensive line was forced to share the spotlight with the offensive line as Davis addressed a packed house at the Triangle Pigskin Preview last Thursday.

"The strengths of our football team for the first time may actually be in the offensive line and possibly the defensive line," Davis said. "I think that we've got some good young men that we think are good players. They've got some talent, they've got some size and they were able to gain some experience last year."

The fact that Davis can make those comments less than two years removed from the early-season events of the 2009 season speak to solid recruiting, a strong coaching performance by offensive line coach Sam Pittman and talented players willing to put in the necessary effort and hours to succeed.

North Carolina entered the 2009 season with five walk-ons and three true freshmen in the three-deep. Add in September injuries to Cooper and senior center Lowell Dyer and the Tar Heels were forced to play true freshmen Travis Bond and Brennan Williams before they were ready. The results were brutal early – FBS opponents held UNC's rushing attack to 239 yards on 116 carries in the first four games, while also sacking quarterback T.J. Yates nine times.

As it stands now, UNC's offensive line enters training camp next week with three returning starters (Cooper, center Cam Holland and freshman All-American left tackle James Hurst) and two new starters (right tackle Brennan Williams and right guard Travis Bond) with at least one start under their belt and significant experience.

In all, North Carolina returns 60 combined starts and a starting five that averages 6-foot-5 and 319 pounds.

"I think one of the biggest differences [from '09 to now] might be everybody on the line not only being knowledgeable, but being physically and athletically gifted," Cooper said. "Not taking away from all of the other guys, but I feel like this is just a group of guys that have size, speed, strength and ability unlike the other groups."

UNC's elite-level recruiting kicks in when looking past the starters and into the two-deep. Five-star freshman Kiaro Holts joins four-star sophomore T.J. Leifheit in battling fifth-year senior Carl Gaskins at tackle, red-shirt freshman Russell Bodine is an ox as Holland's backup and red-shirt sophomore David Collins and junior walk-on Peyton Jenest welcome four-star freshman Landon Turner into the mix at guard.

"Landon Turner is huge – he's about as tall as he is wide," Cooper said. "He's a super nice guy and when James [Hurst] and I are in the film room, he's usually always one of the guys that's in there. He's hungry to play this year and he works really hard."

Senior tackle Tydreke Powell is not one of the defensive linemen that has made quips to media in ribbing their offensive line teammates, but he made it clear on Sunday that those jokes may no longer be warranted.

When asked if the offensive line has made significant strides during his time at North Carolina, Powell responded: "No question – they get better every time they strap on their helmets and come out to practice. That's something that always makes our defensive line better because it always starts in practice…

"This offensive line can be the best offensive line that Carolina has had in a long time."

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