The Vanishing OL

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – During North Carolina's spring practice period, the lone area of concern revolved around the youth at wide receiver. But with critical losses along the offensive line in recent weeks, Sam Pittman's position group has become dangerously thin on depth as the potential success of the '09 season hangs in the balance.

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The Tar Heels' spring two-deep along the offensive line provided plenty of optimism for an offense that finished the '08 campaign ranked 92nd nationally (321.4 ypg), despite having already lost two linemen to career-ending injuries in Zack Handerson and Morgan Randall. Guard Jonathan Cooper served as the lone player of the 10 scholarship linemen entering his second season under Pittman's tutelage, and highly-touted guard Johnnie Farms was expected to push the upperclassmen for a spot on the two-deep when he arrived in August.

Now, only eight days into UNC's fall training camp, April seems as though it was four years ago, not just four months.

The tidal wave first descended on Chapel Hill with the news that backup guard Mike Dykes had secured a medical hardship due to a knee injury. Then rising senior and former starter Aaron Stahl decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and graduate in May. The bad news subsided until late June when Farms learned that he had failed to qualify for admission this fall.

Things went from bad to worse earlier this week when the university announced on Wednesday that backup guard Kevin Bryant had decided to leave the team and then news struck on Thursday that heralded backup tackle Carl Gaskins had torn his ACL and MCL and would miss the season.

Pittman raved about Gaskins during the red-shirt sophomore's first season at North Carolina, and some close to the program felt the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder would challenge red-shirt junior Mike Ingersoll at the right tackle spot this fall. Gaskins suffered his injury during an inside run drill on Wednesday, despite wearing top-of-the-line braces designed to protect the knees.

What's left is a legitimate starting five that is tied for ninth in the ACC with 46 returning starts and a collection of backups that include an ox at center (Cam Holland), a former defensive lineman (Greg Elleby), two true freshmen (Travis Bond and Brennan Williams) and a sophomore walk-on (Peyton Jenest).

"Obviously, when someone like Carl who was going to play gets hurt, there is some concern," starting senior left tackle Kyle Jolly said on Thursday. "But then you have to look around the room and say, ‘Well, okay, we've got guys that can step up and play the position that he was going to play.' We love Carl, but he's not going to be with us this season, so we've got to get ready to roll."

Pittman echoed those sentiments on Friday morning, saying, "We're concerned about the guys that are here, not the ones that aren't, No. 1. The next thing about it is that we just have to have different people – and a bunch of them – play two spots. That's just how it is."

Jolly is working at both tackle positions, while Cooper and red-shirt junior Alan Pelc are working at both guard spots. Elleby is trying to master both left tackle and left guard, while Holland continues his development behind starting center Lowell Dyer.

"When we had Carl, we certainly felt like we were going to play eight guys every game," Pittman said. "But at this point, we're going to play seven guys every game. And when Travis Bond and [Brennan] Williams and those guys come on, we're going to put them in the game, too."

Relying on just seven offensive linemen may sound like a watered-down version of Russian roulette, but it's important to note that UNC only played six linemen in '07 before adding a seventh option last fall with Bryon Bishop and Stahl off the bench. And you cannot discount the fact that five of Pittman's top-six linemen are entering their third year under his direction, meaning that they know the terminology and responsibilities associated with their positions inside-and-out.

"If we were in the same position two years ago, we'd have been in major league trouble," Pittman said.

As such, the third-year offensive line coach can devote the bulk of his teaching time to the true freshmen, who have been placed on the fast track with simplified assignments while already possessing the physical maturity needed to see the field this fall.

"[Strength and conditioning coach] Jeff Connors did a great job with them this summer," Pittman said. "You're talking about one of them at 6-foot-6, 335 [pounds], another guy at 6-foot-6, 295 and the other guy is 6-foot-7, 310, so they are physically big enough. The problem is this – once you get them to go on the right guys, then you've got to teach them how to block the right guys once they get there. So right now, we're getting a little faster each day, but obviously if you're doing too much thinking about responsibilities, you certainly aren't playing fast."

During the rash of injuries that this program endured last fall, head coach Butch Davis consistently preached about the opportunities for other players to grab playing time. That approach has carried over to this season, as the plethora of losses along the offensive line has presented openings for players that otherwise may have been relegated to the scout team.

"My guys better be doing that, because we need them to step up," Jolly replied when asked if his teammates were rising to the occasion. "If they're not ready, then they need to step out of the way for somebody else who wants that opportunity."

One thing is certain, though – North Carolina's margin of error is practically invisible. Pittman quite possibly delivered the understatement of the early season, saying, ‘We'll put a good product out there, but obviously we have to stay away from injuries."

With five walk-ons and three true freshmen in the three-deep, health has become an ominous necessity along the offensive line.

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