Tommy Ashley, radio show co-host
Greg Barnes, beat writer
Mark Paschal, analyst (former Tar Heel LB)
Buck Sanders, columnist
Last year the wheels basically fell off the offensive line. There were new first-time starters (Jon Cooper and Mike Ingersoll) replacing multi-year starters (Calvin Darity and Garrett Reynolds), offensive linemen who left before fall camp (Aaron Stahl and Kevin Bryant), an offensive lineman who was injured and lost for the season before fall camp (Carl Gaskins), and injuries during the season (Lowell Dyer, Cooper).
In terms of the experience gained by players like Travis Bond and Brennan Williams being forced on the field, and with players like Alan Pelc, Cooper, and Ingersoll now being multiple-year starters, will the Heels actually benefit from that this year? Can the offensive line take a giant step forward?
Mark Paschal: I said it last year, and I will say it again this year, the offensive line is the key to success for this football team. Last year it was my biggest area of concern. We lacked depth and experience. This year, Carolina has enough talent and experience on the offensive line to make significant improvements. We will find out pretty quickly if this unit is ready for a breakout year.
Greg Barnes: To be honest, the offensive line took a giant step forward during the second half of last season, once Dyer and Cooper got healthy and Williams and Bond got their oversized feet wet. Shaun Draughn's injury against Duke prevented the OL turnaround from being even more pronounced. With four starters back from the bowl game loss to Pittsburgh, as well as Gaskins's anticipated return, the starting unit can be significantly better. And if James Hurst lives up to his hype, UNC will potentially have four solid backups to help with depth.
Buck Sanders: If the Tar Heels can reverse last year's trend and stay healthy, they have a chance to make the biggest improvement, as a unit, on the team. I am anxious to see Carl Gaskins finally see the field at left tackle, and even though Williams and Hurst are extremely young, it is great for UNC to see some depth at tackle.
No matter who plays quarterback, the UNC offense isn't going to make a dramatic leap forward unless it can force teams to worry about the Heels breaking big plays in the running game.
Tommy Ashley: Williams and Bond were tossed in the fire and if they aren't vastly improved as a result, I'll be shocked. Now, a giant step forward? That remains to be seen. The staff believes Pelc can be very good. Cooper can be a beast if he gets all the technical stuff down. To take a big step, without singling out any one player, the overall toughness and aggressiveness needs to jump up. Too many times last year, the offensive line was allowing the defense to bring the fight to them…this year, they need to be the ones in attack mode.
It is no cliché when coaches say you can never have enough depth at running back. How confident are you that North Carolina has enough depth there to get them through the season?
Tommy Ashley: Seems like a lifetime ago Jon Linton was at Carolina running for 1,000 yards. For whatever reason, Tailback U can't catch a break at a once proud position. Everyone reading this can recite 10-20 names of the ‘next big thing' for the Heels at running back.
Shaun Draughn can be special. He's had his fumble year, his injury year and now it's time for him to step up and get it done 12, 13 or 14 games this season. He's done it behind a ragtag offensive line, now he has some promise in front of him.
We know what Ryan Houston brings to the table and Coach Davis has singled out Gio Bernard as someone to watch out for. Johnny White looks solid. And I've never had a problem with Anthony Elzy at tailback. He's a decent option there in my opinion even if the worst case scenario occurs.
Mark Paschal: Carolina has two guys with plenty of experience and talent in Draughn and Houston. Look for the coaches to try and find a third option during training camp who can be functional if injuries occur. Not a major concern for me.
Greg Barnes: The Tar Heels have three veterans at running back in Draughn, Houston and White, while fullback Elzy played the RB position back in '07. Add in freshman Bernard, who has drawn rave reviews this summer, and Ken Browning's stable is just deep enough at running back.
Buck Sanders: This is an open question for me. When Draughn went down last year, Houston showed he could carry the load in terms of carries, but he's not a threat to break big plays downfield, which limits UNC's play-action passing game. Maybe White can have a breakout year as a senior, or perhaps Bernard can come in and "wow" the staff, but UNC needs more running backs that are consistent threats to get to the second level of defenses.