CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s right guard competition has narrowed to three possible candidates seven days into training camp.
Redshirt freshman Tommy Hatton joins fourth-year juniors Brad Henson and R.J. Prince as the trio of offensive linemen looking to fill the massive load left by former All-ACC standout Landon Turner. Senior utility lineman John Ferranto had secured the starting spot at right guard coming out of spring ball before suffering a season-ending pectoral tear in July.
“It’s a fluid situation,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said on Friday. “I haven’t seen anybody really just be the guy yet. You’re seeing some up-and-down moments from all three of them.”
UNC held its first scrimmage on Wednesday morning with little movement at right guard.
“I don’t think there was any kind of separation or anything, and I didn’t expect there to be a lot of separation with what we were doing,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “Now the second scrimmage and going into the third scrimmage, we ought to start feeling some separation there, I hope.”
Henson, a 6-foot-5, 290-pounder out of Surf City, N.J., has primarily played guard since enrolling at UNC in 2013. He’s played in 26 games during his career, although the bulk of his snaps have come on special teams.
Hatton, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 290-pounds, was recruited as the heir apparent at center behind senior Lucas Crowley. The Glen Rock, N.J. product got his first look at guard during spring ball and has split time at both positions in training camp.
Prince, who looks the part of a quality tackle at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, took his first snaps at guard last week. Kapilovic indicated that it’s still too early to tell if the position will be a solid fit for the Albemarle, N.C. native, although the early returns have been positive.
“We’re hoping that between Tommy and Brad we can really get somebody to step up there, or maybe it’s R.J,” Kapilovic said. “Physically, R.J.’s got all of the tools that you want. It’s just can he get it down mentally and develop the things we need for him to be successful.”
Henson and Hatton are rotating daily between guard and center in order to build depth at both positions. When Henson is working with the first team at right guard, Hatton is taking second-team center reps, and vice versa.
Physicality is a key component for what Kapilovic demands out of the open position.
“The big thing is for the run game, that guy has got to be a physical presence,” Kapilovic said. “Obviously, we had a great one in Landon Turner. That was a physical presence. I know I’m not going to have that right away, but you’ve got to have somebody who can move that [guard] or 3-technique so our inside zone game can go. Pass protection-wise, they’ve got to be solid.”
Having to match up against athletic defensive tackles in Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton has proven beneficial for the position battle thus far, according to Kapilovic.
The negative aspect of the competition is the hit to quality depth behind one of the top starting offensive lines in the ACC. Hatton, along with backups such as left tackle William Sweet, left guard Nick Polino and right tackle Charlie Heck, have never played in a college game.
“That’s where losing Ferranto hurts, because there’s a guy that’s a fifth-year senior that’s played four spots,” Kapilovic said. “So if one of your tackles went down, you can move a veteran over there. Now, you’re in a situation where you’ve got some good young kids, but they’re young. When you start looking at the backups, hardly any of those kids have played before, so as a coach that’s a scary thought.”
Kapilovic said he knew before Ferranto’s injury that he was going to have to get some live game reps for the freshmen to prepare for the future, but now it’s become a forced situation due to the attrition of expected contributors such as Will Dancy, Jared Cohen and Caleb Samuel.
“We’ve got 29 practices and we’re going to need everyone of them,” Kapilovic said.