CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Two years ago this week, three days before he would accept the Arkansas State head coaching job, former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson told Inside Carolina that the offensive line was a year away from returning to its 2012 level of production.
Those comments have proven to be prophetic following a 2015 regular season in which UNC’s offense leads the nation in yards per play (7.33), due in large part to a veteran offensive line headlined by All-American right guard Landon Turner. Second-team All-ACC selections left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck join junior center Lucas Crowley and sophomore left tackle Bentley Spain to round out a starting five that boasts 149 career starts.
Anderson was not alone in his line of thinking, as offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic confirmed following practice on Wednesday.
“Last year, you looked at how young we were and thin, and I remember going into the season saying we pray that Crowley, Turner or Heck don’t go down, and all three of them did at some point,” Kapilovic said. “That’s what makes it really hard. We were so up and down last year. We had a few games that were really good and some games that were awful. Part of that was no continuity and a lack of experience.”
Kapilovic then thought better days were ahead, saying: “You felt like this year was the year.”
That it has been. The Tar Heels have set school records for most points (532) and touchdowns (68) and are on pace to break the school record for average yards per game (486.9).
While there are no specific statistical measures to gauge offensive line play outside of scouting grades, two particular stats shed valuable light on the line’s production: sacks allowed and rushing yards per play.
UNC is tied for ninth in sacks allowed per game (1.08), giving up 14 on the season. While quarterback decision-making and running back blocking factors into that statistic, Kapilovic said his position group has “done a pretty good job” in pass protection.
“Sacks are important to me because I want to protect our quarterback,” Kapilovic said. “The thing about our offense when you’re watching the game is we have so many of those run-pass options that if the ball is not handed off or thrown quickly, it looks a little ugly because no one is blocking for a pass.”
UNC ranks 22nd nationally in rushing offense (222.9), yet third in rushing yards per play (5.9).
“Rushing yards per game is sometimes misleading,” Kapilovic said. “I looked the other day and somebody had 200 yards rushing, but they rushed the ball 65 times. Yeah, that’s great, but when you’re getting five-plus a carry, you’re in pretty good shape, and I think we’re close to six.”
The offensive line’s success this season is built on synergy, chemistry and familiarity, according to fourth-year junior John Ferranto, who has started 17 games throughout his career, including four in 2015.
“We’ve been together for a long time, most of us,” Ferranto said. “We love each other, we’re all good friends and we like playing with each other. We all work hard, so that’s a given. It’s just how close we are as a group, that entire room. This is the fourth different offensive line group I’ve been with since I’ve been here, and I can honestly say we’re the closest we’ve ever been. I think that translates well.”
UNC’s offensive line has thrived despite enduring nine different players suffering injuries during training camp, according to Kapilovic, and having to play six games with seven available linemen due to injuries.
That depth will receive a boost in 2016 as senior backup guard Will Dancy will return from injury and the five-man freshman class that’s currently redshirting will be available. Turner is the lone departure from the rotation.
Freshmen Nick Polino, Tommy Hatton and William Sweet worked with the second team during practice and traveled with the team this season, gaining valuable experience in terms of routine and game plans instead of being relegated to the scout team.
“With some kids you can’t tell, but with them, you can see it,” Kapilovic said. “They want to be good. That’s more than half of the battle.”
That class, along with several other underclassmen on the roster, will be responsible for bridging the gap following next season’s exodus up front and preventing another downturn like the one Anderson foretold two years ago.