OL Under Fire

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Larry Fedora was asked during the ACC media days in July about the determining factor in whether or not North Carolina would challenge for the ACC Coastal Division title, the third-year UNC head coach pointed to his offensive line.

“We’ve got a long way to go up front,” Fedora told reporters this week. “We really do.”

Fedora’s record-setting offense has been grounded relative to its standard level of success. UNC’s 5.4 yards-per-play average is the lowest in Fedora’s seven years as a head coach. The Tar Heels rank 67th nationally in total offense (415.4 ypg), 89th in rushing offense (138.6 ypg) and T-66th in sacks allowed (2.0 per game).

While there are quarterback issues in play, the root of the problem begins up front. Marquise Williams was sacked five times in Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech and assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell scrapped the traditional ground game – UNC’s running backs totaled 15 yards on nine carries – to rely on Williams’ scrambling ability.

Junior right guard Landon Turner said it hurt to watch the game film and see Williams get hit as many times as he did.

“I think we played really well against Clemson,” Turner said. “Maybe there’s some disconnect. I think we just need to refocus as an offensive line and make sure that when we come to compete on game day that we remember the technical things.”

Part of the problem has been a breakdown in fundamentals. Turner highlighted bad pass sets in letting defenders get to the inside or outside, depending on the play, as well as linemen struggling with their footwork. Bad snaps were also an issue.

“One of the bad snaps was on a tempo issue that was my fault,” sophomore center Lucas Crowley said. “I snapped it too early. Stuff like that you’ve just got lock in and focus.”

Youth and inexperience was a concern entering the season for offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic’s group. Making matters worse were injuries to left guard Caleb Peterson (ankle), right tackle Jon Heck (ankle) and Turner (knee). Due to those injuries, UNC’s projected starting lineup has yet to start a game as a full unit.

Turner returned to the starting lineup last weekend after missing the previous two losses at East Carolina and Clemson. Heck, who went down in the first half in Greenville, returned to practice on Tuesday.

“I think he’s questionable,” Kapilovic said. “I think he’s making progress. There’s an outside chance that he can play. You’re just nervous that one bad rollup and that could be it, but I think he’s got a chance.”

To provide perspective on UNC’s personnel woes due to youth and injury, look no further than the right tackle spot on Saturday. With Heck out, junior Kiaro Holts started but suffered an injury in the first half. Redshirt freshman R.J. Prince replaced Holts, only to go down with injury on the last play of the first half.

True freshman Bentley Spain, who is backing up left tackle John Ferranto, entered at right tackle despite taking less than a dozen snaps at right tackle during training camp, according to Kapilovic.

Injuries are one thing; poor technique and play are another.

“We’ve got to find a way to be consistent,” Kapilovic said. “It can’t be these continuous ups and downs. I know youth is part of it, but it’s getting too late in the season to blame things on youth. You’ve played; let’s go.”

UNC’s defensive line improved enough over the first five weeks of the season to give the Tar Heels an opportunity to win against Virginia Tech. The offensive line will have to make similar strides if UNC expects to snap its current three-game losing streak.

Next story:

Inside Carolina TV: Wide receiver Ryan Switzer talks about the offensive struggles against Virginia Tech, the quarterback situation, and looking forward to Notre Dame.

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