CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It’s become a common occurrence to see John Ferranto and R.J. Prince huddled together at lunchtime at the Kenan Football Center breaking down game film. This is not a once- or twice-a-week occasion, but a scheduled session each afternoon from Monday through Thursday.
That connection highlights the forced transition that has occurred at UNC's right guard position.
It's a spot that was Ferranto’s up until a pectoral tear sidelined him in July for his senior season. Playing on the interior of the offensive line had never even crossed Prince’s mind after three years working his way up the depth chart at tackle. Ferranto’s injury prompted Prince’s move to guard before training camp started, and it appeared as though the Albemarle, N.C. native would serve as a backup yet again until Tommy Hatton’s departure last week due to personal reasons reopened the position.
Prince started his first game against Illinois on Saturday night. On UNC’s first offensive play, which included a run-pass option, Prince overset his defender and allowed quarterback Mitch Trubisky to be sacked for a four-yard loss. Five plays later, the 6-foot-6, 325-pounder was flagged for a false start.
For a kid that admittedly has struggled handling adversity in the past, those first two possessions had dire potential to turn his first start into a calamity of errors. His focus has long been to turn his attention to the next play, and that approach eventually took hold at Memorial Stadium.
“He did an admirable job,” offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic said on Wednesday. “A little shaky at first, which was expected. His protection was really good all night. There was only one play where he actually lost on a block. He didn’t give up a sack. And then in the run game, when he was doing what he was supposed to -- right track, hands and hat -- he moved people and did a real nice job.”
To hear Prince tell it, his physical stature made football easy at Albemarle High School, a 1A school less than two hours from Chapel Hill.
“When I got here, all of the blocking schemes felt foreign to me, so it was a long learning curve for me,” Prince said. “And I’m really hard on myself, so when something goes bad, things go downhill quickly.”
His physical offerings have never been in question. Kapilovic’s challenge since Prince enrolled in January 2013 has been elevating his mental component to match his imposing frame.
“He’s got all of the tools to be as good a lineman as we’ve ever had here,” Kapilovic said. “It’s just got to come with confidence. He’s got to believe in it. He’s got to want it. And if he just keeps coming along and doing that, he’s got the tools to be a great one.”
After spending the bulk of his career watching game film of teammates – his 43 snaps against N.C. A&T last season was a career high before playing more than 50 at Illinois – Prince has been able this week to legitimately grade his own performance for a full contest, not just isolated series.
“I watched myself on film from the game and I was like, ‘I’m actually doing a good job,’” said Prince, who was credited with eight knockdown blocks. “I see myself doing great things. That’s what I try to do out here in practice and in the games.”
Prince is expected to start again on Saturday against James Madison. Kapilovic told reporters he’s in contact with Hatton daily and that while he expects the redshirt freshman back, there is no set date planned for his return.
Hatton’s absence has made UNC incredibly thin up front. Junior Brad Henson has moved over from backup center and has taken roughly 90 percent of the snaps with the twos at right guard. Junior walk-on Mark Uptegraff is now working as the primary backup at center behind Lucas Crowley.
“We’ve got a two-deep,” Kapilovic said. “We can’t go much further.”
Prince’s versatility on short notice has allowed UNC to avert further crisis along the offensive line. In doing so, the junior has secured a spot in the starting lineup.
“After three and a half years, it felt like I achieved a goal,” Prince said. “It’s something that I’ve been working for.”