CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s offensive line is four years in the making.
Fifth-year seniors Jon Heck (right tackle) and Caleb Peterson (left guard) arrived at North Carolina in 2012, and were followed a year later by center Lucas Crowley. Since then, the trio of seniors have started a combined total of 102 games for the Tar Heels.
After that much time on the field together, the relationships extend beyond that of teammates.
“Those are two of my best friends,” Heck said. “… We’ve been playing in the same line for years now. We’ve got great chemistry, we feel like we’re on the same page all the time, communication-wise, so it’s definitely a great feeling to be playing next to several guys who you’ve been with for several years.”
Last season, the trio, along with since-departed right guard Landon Turner and junior left tackle Bentley Spain, helped UNC to one of its most prolific offensive seasons in program history. The offensive line opened holes for running back Elijah Hood to rush for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also helping quarterback Marquise Williams rush for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in addition to his 3,072 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air.
With Turner now playing in the NFL, Spain only having one year of starting experience under his belt and senior offensive tackle John Ferranto out for the season due to a pectoral tear, the responsibility will weigh heavily on Peterson, Heck, and Crowley this season.
“Anytime you’ve got a few guys on an offensive line group that have been together, that helps everyone,” Heck said. “It helps the entire line as a whole. If one guy is not on the same page, we’ve got four other guys who can make the call to correct them.”
The majority of the communication along the offensive line runs through Crowley, but even he admits to needing help at times in multitasking in high pressure situations. That’s where his chemistry with Peterson and Heck really kicks in.
“They can help me out whenever I’m trying to figure out other stuff,” Crowley said. “They’re making calls if we’re in the hurry-up offense we run…. Everybody makes each other's job easier.”
The trio enters 2016 knowing that their successes from a season ago don’t transfer over. There’s a clean slate in place, which they see as an opportunity for improvement.
There are some challenges involved with coaching an experienced offensive line, according to OC/OL coach Chris Kapilovic. On the positive side, the veteran linemen have a substantial amount of in-game reps, but on the other hand, they would rather prove themselves on game day than during training camp.
“Now you get a whole new set of problems when you’ve got these older veterans and they’re going through camp again,” Kapilovic said. “So now it’s not like we can just get through camp to get to the games, because they’ve got to get better still.”
The line sees setting goals as the purest motivation to get better, and with Peterson, Crowley, and Heck all in their final season as Tar Heels, those goals are pretty specific.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Heck said. “That’s our biggest goal. We’ve got to be physical. We’re setting out to be an offensive line that’s not only effective but feared from a physicality standpoint.”
The completion of those goals is not only reliant on the offensive line, but the entire offense as a whole. With junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky taking over the offense in 2016, it could have potentially tempered expectations, but not with this group of linemen. Whoever has been playing behind them in recent years hasn’t much mattered.
“There’s not much of a transition,” Crowley said. “Last year when (Williams and Trubisky) would rotate, we never really noticed. They were both good. We had faith in both of them. We’re excited to see what Mitch is going to do this year.”
Heck (38) and Peterson (37) both have an opportunity to break the UNC record for career starts, which is currently held by James Hurst (49). Heck says breaking personal records isn’t currently on their agenda. With this being the trio’s last hurrah in Chapel Hill, they have bigger things in mind.
“Win the Coastal, win the ACC, be the state champs, and our last goal is to win our last game,” Heck said.