Experienced OL Making Strides

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A wealth of experience along the offensive line has resulted in a business-like approach to improvement during North Carolina’s spring practices.

Last July, UNC head coach Larry Fedora told a horde of reporters at the ACC media days in Greensboro that his offensive line was “not ready” heading into training camp. While his forewarning went largely unnoticed, his concerns were proven correct during UNC’s first losing season since 2007.

The offensive line played a significant role in UNC finishing in the middle of the ACC in yards per play (5.56, 7th) and points per play (.430, 8th) in 2014. The Tar Heel front also allowed 28 sacks on the season, the most by a Fedora-coached team since 2008.

Heading into 2015, UNC returns all five starters along the offensive line as well as the most starts along the line in the ACC (106). The Tar Heels’ starting five last fall – left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson, center Lucas Crowley, right guard Landon Turner and right tackle Jon Heck – played intact and remained relatively healthy, missing just seven of a potential 65 starts due to injury.

“We’ve got some depth there now,” Fedora said on Tuesday. “We’ve got guys like Jon Heck and Landon and Crowley and Peterson, guys who got a whole lot of reps last year, so they’re very comfortable out there. You’re seeing them get better and better each day and as a unit, as a whole, because they’ve played together and they know each other.”

Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic told reporters that his position group is “definitely improving” this spring, noting that the team’s 11th practice was the first one in which he felt his unit went through the motions.

There has already been a shakeup in the first team despite the return of all five starters, as sophomore Bentley Spain has replaced Ferranto at left tackle.

“Bentley’s done a nice job,” Fedora said. “He’s stepped up and he’s made some moves.”

With options available with the ones, Kapilovic’s emphasis this spring has been on building a legitimate two-deep across the line, noting that his position group’s depth is not deep enough.

“Right now, you’ve got three tackles – Heck, Spain and Ferranto – battling, and then you’ve got three guards – Turner, [Jared] Cohen and Peterson – battling,” Kapilovic said. “We’re still looking for that second center to really push Crowley.”

Sophomore walk-on Mark Uptegraff is currently backing up Crowley, while sophomore guard Brad Henson and true freshman left tackle William Sweet round out the current two-deep.

Sweet moved up to work with the twos following R.J. Prince’s switch from backup right tackle to defensive tackle earlier this week.

“That was a long debate because if [freshman tackle] Caleb Samuel was back, you’d feel better about it, but he’s not,” Kapilovic said of Prince’s move. “But if there’s a time to see if he can do it, this is the time to do it, so we’re giving him a chance because he’s got the physical tools to do it.”

Fedora said Prince’s test run would last five days, at which point the coaching staff would decide whether or not to keep the 6-foot-6, 315-pound sophomore at defensive tackle or switch him back to the offensive line.

A silver lining to the Prince experiment is an increased number of reps for Sweet, the four-star early enrollee that stands 6-foot-7 and already weighs 280 pounds.

“I think William is finding his way,” Fedora said. “He’s learning as we go. We’ve thrown him into the fire. He’s a talented young man. He’s just got to learn it.”

Given how the spring has played out thus far along the offensive line, don’t expect any more forewarnings from UNC’s fourth-year head coach this summer.

“I don’t have the same concerns that I had last year,” Fedora said.

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