CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s offensive line entered the season labeled as one of the nation’s most experienced with seniors penciled into four starting positions. Seven games in, the Tar Heels are leaning heavily on inexperienced linemen due to injuries.
Senior John Ferranto, who won the starting job at right guard in training camp, suffered a season-ending pectoral injury shortly before the start of training camp, which forced redshirt freshman Tommy Hatton and junior R.J. Prince out of their natural positions to compete for the vacant spot.
A month into the season senior left guard Caleb Peterson suffered an undisclosed injury that he battled through at Florida State but that sidelined him against Virginia Tech and Miami and will likely keep him out of Saturday’s contest at Virginia. And then at Hard Rock Stadium last weekend, senior right tackle Jon Heck took a shot to the head and had to be helped off the field with concussion-like symptoms.
Ferranto, Peterson and Heck have combined for 104 career starts, and that level of experience and leadership is not easy to replace, according to offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic. Redshirt freshman William Sweet replaced Heck at Miami, joining Hatton, who played in Peterson’s left guard position, and Prince in the lineup alongside of junior left tackle Bentley Spain and senior center Lucas Crowley.
Cohesiveness and communication are the key ingredients for solid line play, and those qualities have been severely tested by the injuries. UNC had time to counteract Ferranto’s loss during training camp, but that luxury ceased for Kapilovic once the season kicked off.
“Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got Sweet, who’s young, next to R.J., so R.J.’s not getting any help there and R.J.’s not able to give Sweet as much help as a veteran would,” Kapilovic said after practice on Wednesday. “And then you’ve got Crowley who’s trying to help both of his new guards, and that puts stress on Lucas.”
Kapilovic told reporters that Sweet played “fairly well” against Miami despite two procedure penalties and failing to recognize some blitzes that Heck may have picked up. Heck’s injury has sped up Sweet’s planned timeline, which was to play snaps in each game this season before taking over the right tackle spot in 2017. Now he’s expected to make his first career start in Charlottesville.
“He’ll have a great challenge this week,” Kapilovic said. “[Virginia defensive end] Andrew Brown is very talented, so we’re going to see what he’s all about right away. But he’s had a good week of practice and I feel like each day he’s getting better.”
Sweet indicated his approach hasn’t changed this week despite the increase of reps with the first team in practice.
“Our motto is ‘next man up,’” Sweet said. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link. We believe everyone has to be ready, no matter what your status is or what the situation is. You’ve got to always be prepared and have your brothers’ back.”
Hatton, who started the season opener against Georgia at right guard before leaving the team for personal reasons, has been closing the gap on the time he missed since returning in late September.
“I thought he had his best week of practice this week,” Kapilovic said. “When you’re a young guy and you miss three-and-a-half weeks, it’s basically like you lost your whole training camp. It’s like starting over, so it’s just catching back up.”
The primary adjustment for Hatton is switching from right guard to left guard has been his footwork.
“You get so used to the right side and then you go to the left side and it’s all backwards,” Hatton said. “It’s different, but it’s been awesome. It’s good to be versatile and to be able to play different positions.”
Kapilovic reiterated the importance of having five guys working together seamlessly up front, something that has not expected to be a problem for this team just three months ago. That process has begun again.
“At times we looked pretty sloppy and at times we did some really good things,” Kapilovic said. That consistency, that’s always the battle with young guys. So every week in practice we’ve just got to get better and hope that we can keep five guys healthy so they can play together for awhile.”