Center Cut Choices

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's spring practice has largely focused on building quality depth behind an experienced corps of returning starters, and there may be no better example than what's transpiring at the center position.

Technically speaking, red-shirt junior Cam Holland and red-shirt sophomore Jonathan Cooper are offensive linemen with starting experience. But Holland did so solely out of necessity, filling in at center during a six-game stretch in' 09 while Lowell Dyer dealt with a shoulder injury, and Cooper spent last fall lining up at left guard.

When starting right guard Alan Pelc slid over and started at center in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Pittsburgh, speculation arose that he may make that transition for good, but that will not happen. Instead, Cooper and Holland find themselves entrenched in an unexpected battle in the middle.

The plan ever since Cooper signed out of Wilmington (N.C.) Hoggard was for the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder to gain experience at guard in '09 and then make the permanent move to center once Dyer graduated. Holland, on the other hand, had been tabbed as a perennial backup better known for benching 500 pounds and putting 225 pounds up some 30 times earlier this spring.

Had Dyer not suffered a freak shoulder injury last September, Cooper may have been the undeniable leader in the clubhouse for the center position this spring. But live game experience delivers a rare perspective that practice doesn't provide, arming Holland with the knowledge needed to take the next step in his development.

"It was extremely helpful," said Holland, who checks in at 6-foot-2, 295-pounds. "Getting that playing time really allowed me to get to know the offense better than I was as a backup. Center is the general of the offensive line, so I feel like with that experience, I'm able to go in there and get everybody going."

The result became apparent on Wednesday when head coach Butch Davis indicated that Holland is having "far and away" the best spring practice of his career.

"He is putting some heat on Jonathan Cooper," Davis said. "If he becomes a solidified guy, then maybe we go the other direction and put Jonathan Cooper maybe back at guard."

While Cooper hopes that his future remains at center instead of a switch back to guard, he also acknowledges that Holland has challenged him ever since the scoreboard displayed triple zeros at Bank of America Stadium following the bowl loss to Pittsburgh.

"Cam's really pushing me because there are times when I make mistakes and I'm like, ‘I've just really got to pick it up because Cam is right there'," Cooper said. "We're pretty much even. He might even have the edge just because he's done it in the game and he's really smart; everything they give to him, he retains it and can handle it mentally."

Holland elected against naming a frontrunner, only saying, "We have two really good centers, so whoever's out there I'm confident will perform really well."

That level of competition provides insight into the high praise from strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors surrounding the immense work ethic present in offseason workouts. With a roster full of talented individuals and minimal playing time available, the players' only options were to dive in head first or risk being the only ones left standing on the pool's edge.

It's also beneficial for the offensive line to be working under coach Sam Pittman for the fourth straight season, as well as building working – and friendly – relationships along the way.

"The unit is really close," Holland said. "We do have a lot of young guys this year, so the older guys have been stepping in and cultivating and helping these young guys out. I've never seen anything like it."

Pelc is limited this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, but the red-shirt senior participates by serving as the center in various skill position drills during practice. With Holland's emergence, Pelc will likely only take occasional reps at center once he returns, and those would be for emergency purposes only.

"It's a good problem to know that you've got two really good offensive centers," Davis said.

That fact alone may be worth enough to claim this spring a success.

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