Eddy: Laying it on the Line

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina will make a leap forward in football when the offensive line finally makes consistent and noteworthy progress.

To their credit, the guys along the line have improved since UNC opened at Oklahoma in 2001. But they are not there all the way there yet, particularly as run blockers.

"Individually," UNC coach John Bunting said, "I think they are much improved. I saw that during the course of training camp. But then we got out there in the game and did not play as well as we need to play for us to be a winning football team."

When John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League, he said that he and owner Al Davis liked to debate the most important position on any football team.

Madden always said offensive line. Davis claimed cornerback.

While they disagreed on which came first, Madden said the two men agreed that offensive line and cornerback are the two most important spots.

When you think about it, it's tough to dispute just how important the line is. There is no running back on God's green earth that will not look better playing behind a great offensive line. The same can be said for any quarterback.

You could put the great Jim Brown behind a sorry line, and his production would suffer. So it should come as no surprise that Bunting has been urging his offensive linemen to take charge and make a difference for this team.

"The biggest challenge that I've made to this football team for this year is to our offensive line," Bunting said. "Our offensive line has got to come through in order for us to be successful.

"That will allow us to run the ball more."

The line didn't play poorly in the opener against Miami of Ohio, but Bunting said that it did fall below his expectations.

"I was disappointed in the offensive line," Bunting said. "I challenged them during the week, and I challenged them on game day to come through. And they did not."

Sophomore center Jason Brown said the line played hard, if not always well.

"Most of our guys gave 100-percent effort," Brown said. "But still, we could have played smarter."

Part of the problem is the offensive line must work as a unit, each guy knowing when to take a certain rusher and when to turn in the opposite direction.

And this is one reason experience is so critical.

Before all is said and done, Bunting said that a freshman or two could play on the line this season. Brown and Chase Page played on the offensive line as true freshmen a year ago. Page has since moved to defensive tackle.

This time it could be Kyle Ralph, a first-year player from Cincinnati.

The Tar Heels will not be able to say they've turned the corner to consistent prosperity until they are no longer playing freshmen on the line. Offensive linemen are like big guys in basketball. It takes them longer to mature and refine their craft. The more newcomers play on the offensive line, the less productive most teams are.

If Carolina can ever start to recruit and retain the quality of offensive linemen so that few play before their red-shirt sophomore or junior seasons, Bunting can claim significant progress with his program.

Until then, the Tar Heels will continue to throw out a patchwork quilt and hope for the best.

"Coach Bunting is telling us this year it starts with the offensive line," Brown said. "This is a very large challenge. We feel we're able to take on the challenge. We feel comfortable taking on that challenge.

"If there is going to be a change in this year's team, it is going to start with us."

Eddy Landreth, a freelance writer who lives in Pittsboro, N.C., is a former ACC beat writer for the Durham Herald-Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Charlotte Observer.

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