Experience by Fire

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Breakdowns and lapses were all but assured early in the season for No. 25 North Carolina’s inexperienced offensive line. The learning curve has been steep thus far and may escalate due to injury concerns for veteran right guard Landon Turner.

Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic provided a harsh glimpse on Tuesday into the film review of UNC’s 31-27 win over San Diego State. He graded his line’s first-half performance as an “F” before improving to a “C+” after halftime.

“We were fearful going into the game with the exotic looks you get from them, that there would be some hesitancy,” Kapilovic said following practice. “They even gave us a little different look than we had seen before, so that really kind of threw my young center off. He really struggled in the first half.”

That center is true sophomore Lucas Crowley, who started his third career game and played in his eighth. The Ponte Vedra, Fla. pointed to “weird” defensive calls, such as blitzes paired with lineman stunts and linebacker/corner blitzes, for the confusion.

“I had a rough game – in the first half, anyway,” Crowley said. “I expected to do a lot better and expected more out of myself... I think I can do a lot better and I think I can get a lot better. I just have to work at it.”

UNC head coach Larry Fedora said during his radio show on Tuesday that Crowley “was in shock” against the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 defensive scheme, adding that the other four players along the line feed off what the center says.

“It created a problem for us, and it wasn’t until he settled down, and we got a little more consistency going, that it opened up things for everybody else,” Fedora said.

UNC’s offense was held scoreless and churned out just 108 yards of offense in the first half on Saturday. The Tar Heels gained 37 yards on 14 plays in the second quarter.

UNC nearly tripled that yardage production after halftime with 286 yards and outscored San Diego State 17-6 in the fourth quarter.

“To their credit, at halftime [the offensive line] calmed down,” Kapilovic said. “We got ourselves back together, put our young freshman in at right guard and they did some good things in the second half. Our protection was much better. There was better communication. The run game was a little bit better – it’s still not where we want to be – but I thought there was improvement.

“The good news, I guess I would say, is that they didn’t just let it totally overtake them. They found a way to fight back.”

UNC started two juniors and three sophomores against the Aztecs and finished with a junior, three sophomores and a true freshman in Jared Cohen after Turner suffered a knee injury in the second quarter. Fedora’s strict injury policy only allows for details if a player suffers a season-ending injury, so if there’s a silver lining to Turner’s status, it’s that Fedora hasn’t shared that information.

Even so, Fedora’s comments on Tuesday regarding the loss of Turner’s leadership weren’t promising.

“It’s the one guy that had experience and now we don’t have that,” Fedora said. “But, those other guys have gotten experience this season, so the way we look at it is it doesn’t really matter whether you have experience or not, we’re going to play and you’re going to have to play well.”

There are some positives along the offensive line. Left guard Caleb Peterson, who started 12 games last season, continues to work back from an ankle injury that has relegated him to backup duty in UNC’s first two games. And sophomore John Ferranto, who made his second career start on Saturday, won offensive player of the game honors after tallying 15 knockdowns and not allowing a pressure or a sack.

A bye week three weeks is normally not a preferred option, although it comes at an ideal time for a UNC offensive line trying to establish an identity. Crowley said the off-week emphasis has been on sled work and finishing blocks in team drills. More importantly, it’s about improving an inexperienced mindset that hasn’t taken full advantage of the scout team to date.

“They’ve got to play with confidence,” Kapilovic said. “They’ve got to continue to play hard and not let the whole environment and everything that happens overcome them. That’s part of being young.”

Without Turner available in the short term – however long that may be – Kapilovic has opened up the depth chart this week for competition.

“I’m trying new combinations and hopefully we’ll just keep competing until we can find five guys that want to get it done,” Kapilovic said.

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