CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the aftermath of UNC’s 2014 season, one plagued by locker room issues and breakdowns in all three phases, right guard Landon Turner considered submitting his name for the NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-4, 325-pound lineman had received a 5th-round grade by the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a committee comprised of scouts and NFL front-office personnel. He had earned All-ACC honors as a junior after grading out at 87 percent for the season, including a career-best grade of 97 percent in UNC’s rout over rival Duke.
His college career was winding down, not only on the field, but in social settings as well. Friends were graduating and moving on, ready to start their lives post-Chapel Hill. Add in valuable intangibles, such as his character and work ethic, and Turner thought his chances were good to have his name called in the draft.
And yet there was something holding him back. As easy as it would have been to leave school and say goodbye to a program that appeared to be heading in the wrong direction following a blowout loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl, Turner felt a responsibility in solving those issues instead of leaving them for someone else.
“I thought there was still more that I could give to this team,” Turner said. “I felt like they still needed me. The team aspect was a lot of it. That was my main reason, and I also thought I could probably use another year myself to get better. I just had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to come back one more year, for myself and for the team.”
The decision to return did not immediately alleviate his doubts. He admits to last spring being an especially tough time, watching his friends, as well as his girlfriend, graduate while he remained.
“I’ve had my moments where I thought, ‘wow, did I really make the right decision?’” Turner said. “But if this season has taught me anything, even in camp, when I got out of camp I already knew that this was the best decision I could have made. It’s really about the guys on the team. I tell them that all of the time. Since South Carolina I’ve told them, because it’s never going to be the same. All of these guys mean a lot to me, they mean the world; they’re my brothers. And they’ve given me a season I could never forget.”
North Carolina is ranked 11th nationally and is in the midst of the longest in-season winning streak – 10 games - since 1914. The Tar Heel offense ranks 10th nationally in scoring offense (40.9) and 19th in total offense (490.5). The offense line has been a primary factor in that success, as evidenced by UNC ranking T-14th nationally in sacks allowed (12) and sixth in rushing yards per attempt (5.7).
UNC head coach Larry Fedora credits Turner with running the offensive line.
“He’s made them more consistent,” Fedora said. “His leadership alone, and the way he runs that group. Those guys, all of them, have done a great job, and [offensive line coach Chris] Kapilovic has done a great job with them, and they come to work every day. They come to work. They don’t say a whole lot, they come to work. Landon’s the one that does all of the talking, and the others listen and do what he says.”
Turner has graded out at 90 percent or higher in nine of UNC’s 11 games this season. Those efforts have resulted in four ACC player of the week awards, joining Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson as the only players in the league to be recognized more than three times.
“The big thing is that he’s improved every year,” Kapilovic said. “He’s shown improvement every year. He’s very coachable. He’s conscious about his technique, and he’s done a great job in the weight room getting stronger and faster. All of his numbers went up this summer, from the vertical to his strength numbers. For as big of a guy as he is, he made all of his conditioning tests. I just think getting in better shape, getting stronger, and as a football player, his IQ has gone up and so has his technique.”
As Turner prepares for his regular season finale in a UNC uniform, marking his 40th career start, there’s no doubt his decision to return has proven beneficial. Not only are the Tar Heels competing for the ACC Championship against Clemson on Dec. 5, but they are also a dark horse candidate for the College Football Playoff.
On an individual level, Turner has played himself up various mock draft boards. CBSSports.com projects the Harrisonburg, Va. native as a second-round choice in next April’s draft. He’s a lock for the All-ACC team and is a candidate for All-America honors.
“I think Landon felt some responsibility to the University of North Carolina and to the team,” Fedora said. “He had a very close bond with a lot of guys on the team and he wanted to have success in his last year.
“That’s why I’m so happy for him because he’s having the senior season that I could only hope for last year. That’s what we talked about. If you come back, you’ve got to do this, this and this to be better, and that’s what he’s done. And he’s having that kind of year, so I’m really proud of him.”