The Benefits of Experience

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – At one point during Saturday's win over Duke, the right side of North Carolina's offensive line consisted of a third-string center and two true freshmen at guard and tackle. But while similar recipes provided disastrous results just five weeks ago, UNC's offensive line is finally growing up.

Early season struggles in the trenches were expected with linemen such as Aaron Stahl (early graduation), Kevin Bryant (dismissed) and Carl Gaskins (ACL) crossed off the depth chart before Labor Day even arrived. But then things took a turn for the worse in Week 2 when starting center Lowell Dyer (shoulder), starting red-shirt freshman left guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) and fullback Bobby Rome were sidelined for the Connecticut game on Sept. 12.

While quarterback T.J. Yates engineered a come-from-behind 12-10 victory, the offensive line's performance approached atrocious. North Carolina rushed for minus-two yards on 24 carries through three quarters, and Yates was pressured constantly and sacked six times.

The Tar Heels averaged just 198.7 yards and 7.3 points in its first three contests against BCS opposition this season, and the offensive line shouldered much of the blame. Things came to a head following the 16-3 debacle against Virginia when head coach Butch Davis indicated that his offensive staff would simplify its playbook to help reduce confusion along the front.

And as autumn returned to Chapel Hill, so to did Dyer and Cooper to the starting line-up. But adversity struck once again when archrival Duke arrived on Saturday. True freshman Brennan William started in place of Mike Ingersoll (back) at right tackle and played approximately 25 snaps. Dyer was sidelined with a stomach virus and backup center Cam Holland suffered a shoulder stinger in the first half and was ultimately shelved at halftime.

Starting right guard and third-string center Alan Pelc played all 80 offensive snaps – 40 at the guard positions and 40 at center. But a funny thing happened against the Blue Devils – the production free-fall that occurred in the first-half of the season never materialized. Even with starting tailback Shaun Draughn knocked out of the game on the first play from scrimmage, UNC churned out 192 rushing yards on 51 carries and allowed just four quarterback hurries and two sacks.

"You don't ever want to play without your best players," Davis said. "But here we are now 10 or 11 weeks into the season, and some of those guys have gotten more practice reps. If you take a look at Brennan Williams and Travis Bond and Cam Holland and Jonathan Cooper – 10 weeks ago, those guys had zero playing experience. They had not been in ball games and they could not even tell you what the fronts were, much less tell you who's supposed to block them.

"Well, they've got a better idea [now]. It's baptism under fire. They've learned to have to play out of necessity and they've got to keep sucking it up and they've got to keep trying to get better. We're fortunate that they're good kids and they really take coaching well. We just need them to continue to play well."

Senior left tackle Kyle Jolly echoed his coach's sentiments, saying, "It's one of those things where those early trials and tribulations have helped us out so much later in the season when other guys are having to flip around and move so much."

To date, North Carolina has lost 19 games due to injury along the offensive line. Add in 13 lost games at tight end, eight at wide receiver, seven at running back and another two at fullback, and the Tar Heels' struggles offensively (294.3 ypg, 113th nationally) begin to make some sense.

"You have to adjust," Davis said. "You have to adapt. Our offensive coaches have been faced with that pretty much all year long, whether it's been offensive linemen that have been in-and-out, whether it's been Zack Pianalto that's been in-and-out, Dwight Jones with the knee injury and surgery. They've been put to the task just about every single week to try to manufacture things and to try to alleviate some of the issues that injuries cause."

Tougher challenges lie ahead against stout defensive fronts hailing from Miami and Boston College. And while this offensive line is nowhere close to what Davis envisions years down the road, the snapshots of potential are seemingly multiplying with each passing week.

Cooper nearly ran stride-for-stride with Draughn while pulling during the tailback's 44-yard scamper against Virginia Tech, and Bond plowed through the Duke defensive line numerous times on Saturday. Add in an offensive line recruiting class that currently ranks amongst the best in the country – including three standouts in T.J. Leifheit (tackle), Johnnie Farms (guards) and James Hurst (tackle) that plan to arrive in January – and the future in the trenches is beginning to look up.

But for now, North Carolina's patchwork offensive line must continue to grind down the stretch as lingering health issues could play a vital role in the Tar Heels' charge towards a postseason bowl berth.

When asked if Holland would be available for Saturday's contest against Miami, Davis replied, "I don't know – tomorrow we'll find out who shows up for practice and we'll try to find five guys who are healthy enough [to play]."

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