Outlining the OL

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina ranked 107th nationally in rushing offense last fall, and while all eyes this spring will be on running back Greg Little's role in correcting that statistic, the Tar Heels' veteran offensive line continues to work diligently behind the press clippings.

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, UNC's offensive line was adapting to its third position coach in as many years, and the learning process was slow and deliberate. But with a season of experience with new line coach Sam Pittman and a dedicated offseason full of conditioning and film study, the Tar Heels are ready to make strides in these 15 practices.

"As a line, we feel a lot better than we did last year," right guard Calvin Darity said. "We had all new coaching and a whole new system. This year, I think we've got a really good handle on it."

Pittman can already see a significant change from last spring after just two days of practice.

"It's night and day – it's totally different," Pittman said. "Last year we were teaching our calls and what this meant and what are we going to do when this happens. A lot of last year was assignment football – it really was… We've always taught technique, but you can get more in-depth with it and you can understand looks and pre-snap."

Headlining the trench fighters are seniors Darity and RT Garrett Reynolds, who have combined for 43 starts in their careers. Juniors LT Kyle Jolly and C Aaron Stahl also return with a full year of starting experience under their belts.

In all, North Carolina returns nine of its 10 players from the line's two-deep in 2007, with the notable loss of starting center Scott Lenahan.

"Scott was a great asset, because he was pretty much the heart and soul of the O-line," Darity said. "But with him gone, I know that Garrett [Reynolds] and a whole bunch of other seniors are trying to step up. We're already a tight-knit group, so I think it will be different without Scotty around, but we'll be able to manage."

Lenahan battled numerous injuries throughout his career, including during his final season, allowing backup center Lowell Dyer to gain invaluable experience with five starts in the middle.

The coaching staff moved Stahl over to center for the spring, while red-shirt freshman C Cam Holland is taking snaps with the third-team offense.

"If you don't have three centers – if you can't snap the ball, you're not going to play the game," Pittman said. "So we needed to make sure that we had good depth at the center spot. The bottom line behind [the move] was I thought Aaron was a better center last year than he was a guard."

The Tar Heels are without one key component this spring as Jolly is sidelined with a left foot injury. Backup right tackle Mike Ingersoll has moved over to take snaps in Jolly's place, with one red-shirt freshman breathing down his neck in hopes of earning playing time this fall.

"Everybody's going to have to watch out for Carl Gaskins, because I'm telling you, he's a super young player – I mean really good," Pittman said.

North Carolina red-shirted all four of its freshmen (Holland, Gaskins, Kevin Bryant and Mike Dykes) in 2007, and they all benefited by seeing varying amounts of practice reps during the season.

"Without getting into names, I think we have some [red-shirt] freshmen that are certainly going to vie for a starting position," Pittman said. "I think we have some freshmen that will definitely be in the two-deep and then we still have some guys that are going to continue to develop, but those four guys that we brought in our first year here are all good players. They're smart kids and they will definitely help us in the future and some of them in the immediate future… Our freshmen, right now, are way ahead of where our older guys were last year at this point."

The early returns on the red-shirt freshman class suggests that the staff succeeded in meeting Pittman's goals on the recruiting trail for the 2007 season.

"We want somebody that's smart and then we want someone that's athletic," Pittman said about his recruiting philosophy. "I think you'll see in the future that we'll take [defensive] linemen and move them to the offensive line, and I think that we'll recruit defensive linemen with thoughts of the offensive line, and I think we'll recruit a lot of tight ends that will eventually move inside and play tackle."

The offensive line will undoubtedly live in Greg Little's shadow for the next nine months, but as long as victories begin to crowd the win/loss column, the big uglies will continue to make due in their underappreciated roles.

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