"[Our] expectation right now is to be the best offensive line in the ACC," said senior Willie McNeill. "More yards per carry and less sacks, that's the main thing that we're working on."
UNC assistant coach Hal Hunter was the second or third offensive line coach for several of the veterans when he took over in 2002, replacing Robbie Caldwell, who departed for Vanderbilt. There was new terminology and a new coaching philosophy that had to be absorbed – both mentally and physically.
The timeline for improvement is a somewhat standard one, Hunter said.
In the first season there was a feeling out process that went on between Hunter and the players. By the second year, there was a comfort zone. Then if all has gone according to plan, everyone is on the same page by the third year.
"It's been like that everywhere I've ever been," Hunter said. "By that third year, you're up and steaming. That is where we are at right now. It also helps that we have talented players."
In order to get the most effort, Hunter has continuously fostered a competitive environment. Every position is open on every day, although Hunter admitted that barring an injury Brown would likely start at center versus William & Mary.
Even fifth-year tackles McNeill and Skip Seagraves are without the luxury of a guaranteed starting position in the season opener.
"It's not always fair [to the more experienced players], but he's going to put the best five in to play in the game," Seagraves said. "We just have a lot of guys that could be starters for us. It's really hard and competitive, but that's making us better as a group."
"It's competition," McNeill added. "I mean, I don't want to go into a job, knowing that I've got the job. Then I won't practice as hard and I might get a little big-headed."
It hasn't been easy, but it appears a solid foundation has been formed for years to come. Providing recruiting continues to be strong and Hunter sticks around, then the days of ‘wait until next year' could become a distant memory.
"Our maturity level has grown," McNeill said. "Our work ethics with Coach Hunter, and his expectations of us, has raised our expectations. That just makes our performances go up and up. Coach Hunter asks us, ‘What are our goals?' And that's how he's going to coach us. Every little thing we do wrong, he's going to be on our backs."
It could be stated that the Tar Heels have three starters returning at tackle. McNeill played both tackle positions, while Seagraves and junior Brian Chacos platooned almost evenly at right tackle.
For the first time since Hunter arrived, the flexibility is there to rotate players between positions. Last year there were a limited number playing two spots, but that will change this season. And again, it makes for even more competition and depth.
"I've got a lot of guys that can play more than one position," Hunter said. "If Chacos is among the best five at that time, then he'll start at guard and Seagraves will still play tackle. Kyle Ralph is at right guard right now. But if Seagraves moves to right guard, then I'll move Ralph to left and Charlston Gray can move up to left guard where Arthur Smith is starting right now.
"Your goal is to have the best five on the field. If somebody goes down, you have to be able to move the next guy up and he might not be right behind [on the depth chart]."
"That's exciting, just having that many guys that can play and that want to play," added Seagraves.