CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While North Carolina’s right guard battle remains an open competition, redshirt freshman Tommy Hatton’s reps with the first-team offense have increased in recent days.
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic has employed a set rotation since training camp opened two weeks ago to determine Landon Turner’s replacement on the right side. When Hatton takes snaps with the ones at right guard, junior Brad Henson works at center with the twos, and vice versa. It’s been a daily cycle designed to build depth at both positions while junior R.J. Prince also takes snaps with the twos at right guard.
That rotation, however, has been tweaked a bit this week.
“In meetings, [Kap] will be like, ‘Tommy, you’re going at center,’ or ‘Tommy, you’re going with the ones at guard,’” Hatton said on Thursday. “That’s pretty much it, but the past few days, he’s just been like, ‘stay with the ones,’ so I’m like, ‘alright, I’ll stay with the ones.’ That’s okay with me.”
Kapilovic confirmed that Hatton had been running with the ones for several days, but told reporters there was “still a fluid rotation” at right guard. He also indicated there was a good chance of multiple players taking snaps at the position when the season starts on Sept. 3.
“A few of those guys are starting to get it a little better than the others, but we have to develop multiple centers and we have to develop multiple guards, so we’ll continue the rotation,” Kapilovic said.
Hatton, a 6-foot-3, 295-pounder out of Glen Rock, N.J., arrived at UNC as the heir apparent at center despite never playing the position in high school, where he spent his time at guard and tackle. His verbal filter is unchecked, and so it was after practice in August’s oppressive heat with an index pushing 105 that the talkative Hatton reeled off details about his position, career and life to the handful of reporters milling around.
He intended to play as a true freshman last fall, at least until a high ankle sprain in the second week of the season sidelined him for eight games. It was severe enough to linger into spring ball, where he missed several practices and took most of his snaps at center, although he spent a couple of days rotating in at right guard behind John Ferranto and Henson.
The challenge in playing right guard, according to Hatton, is that in Larry Fedora’s offense, that position is tasked with understanding blitzes and making the corresponding correct calls in pass protection. There’s also the aspect of knowing when to stay in your gap and knowing when to pop out. The latter is a personal fave that prompts a large smile on his face.
“Physically, I like it because at center you have to worry about snapping the ball,” Hatton said. “For me, I just want to come off the ball and hit somebody, so that’s been good. I just get to load up and come off the football.”
Hatton is admittedly a perfectionist, and he’s made a habit of peppering Kapilovic with questions, both in the film room and on the practice field, intent on learning every nuance of the guard position. He suggests that Kapilovic likely finds his inquisitive approach annoying, although it ensures the removal of any possible confusion.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen in a really long time,” senior left guard Caleb Peterson said. “He really stands out in my mind in that aspect because Tommy’s not the most talented person. He’s not the most athletic person, and he’s not the strongest person, but Tommy wins the majority of his reps through hard work and battling. That’s something that’s paramount in O-line play.”
That inherent approach is what drives Hatton, not the lingering position battle with Henson and Prince.
“I’m not worried about the competition,” Hatton said. “I’m just worried about myself and getting better every single day. That’s all I can control: my effort and my attitude. So every day I go out there with a good attitude and give everything I have. I’m doing the best I possibly can and I’m getting better each day. I feel it.”
There’s still work to be done at right guard, even though the time remaining before kickoff at the Georgia Dome is dwindling.
“I’m getting closer to feeling comfortable,” Kapilovic said. “I don’t sleep very well already, but if we were playing tomorrow that would be tough on me. But we’re getting closer.”