CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic has been forced into a juggling act of sorts that he would rather avoid up front in balancing injuries, attrition and the intent to redshirt most, if not all, of his five-man freshman class.
The Tar Heels returned all five starters along the offensive line this season and boasted the most career starts (106) within that position group in the ACC. Despite the emergence of Bentley Spain last spring to beat out incumbent left tackle John Ferranto, the line’s depth was a bit of a question mark entering training camp.
It then became a legitimate concern when top reserve guard Jared Cohen left the team for personal reasons and veteran interior lineman Will Dancy suffered a season-ending injury. A lower leg injury has sidelined Spain since the second week of the season, cutting UNC’s playing roster down to bare numbers.
“We’ve gone in with seven guys the last two weeks,” Kapilovic said following practice on Tuesday. “I’m praying that we can have eight for this one; right now, we don’t.”
UNC’s starting line currently consists of Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson, center Lucas Crowley, right guard Landon Turner and right tackle Jon Heck. The other two scholarship players that have rounded out Kapilovic’s rotation the last two weeks are tackle R.J. Prince and guard/center Brad Henson.
Noticeably missing from that group are UNC’s five true freshmen, including backup center Tommy Hatton, who has been plagued with injuries dating back to training camp.
“Originally I was going to play Hatton, but the longer this goes, the more it’s probably going to make us want to redshirt him,” Kapilovic said. “The other freshmen I would love to redshirt.”
The Tar Heels signed Hatton, tackles William Sweet and Charlie Heck and guards Nick Polino and Mason Veal in February. Sweet and Polino are on UNC’s travel team and take reps with the first team every day in practice.
“They are ready,” Kapilovic said. “If an emergency happens, then they’re going to have to go, but in a perfect world, that won’t happen. But they’re getting better every day. They’re getting closer to where I think they can handle it, but you would love to be able to have those guys get a year under their belt and be able to have them for four more years.”
The intent to redshirt all five freshmen has emphasized the need for versatility among the available players. Heck has played right and left tackle so far, while Turner has manned both guard positions as well as serving as UNC’s emergency center.