North Carolina had one of the best offensive lines in the ACC last season.
But what was a veteran unit is now rebuilding with three new starters -- including two redshirt freshmen.
Not exactly the ideal set of circumstances the Tar Heels want headed into their opener against No. 6 South Carolina on Thursday night. Especially since just about everybody is asking how North Carolina will contain Gamecocks star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
“I’d love to have a couple games under our belt before playing them because they’re an outstanding defensive line,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said in a phone interview. “It’s more than just Clowney. Those other guys are really good. That’s probably the best defensive line we’ll face since I’ve been here. But our guys understand the challenge, and they’ve worked extremely hard. We’re going to have to be sharp and do a good job schematically.”
The Tar Heels, especially the offensive linemen, have been answering questions about South Carolina and Clowney for months now. North Carolina lost loads of game experience from its group last fall, including its best player -- All-American guard Jonathan Cooper.
Consider this: North Carolina went into the 2012 season with a combined 92 starts from its starting offensive linemen. This season, the starting linemen have combined for 54 starts. A vast majority of those belong to senior tackle James Hurst and his 36 career starts.
Indeed, with Cooper gone, North Carolina plans to rely more on Hurst and center Russell Bodine to help the younger players along. Hurst should be one of the best tackles in the country, so that gives the team an advantage.
Kapilovic calls Hurst, “the smartest offensive lineman I’ve ever coached. He’s a tremendous student of the game, his note taking, his attention to detail. When you explain something to him one time, he’s got it.”
What is particularly beneficial is that Hurst and Bodine will start alongside redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson, who takes over for Cooper at left guard. Peterson has never played in a collegiate game, so opening against Clowney is almost like throwing a guppy into a pond full of piranhas. He’ll have to find a way to survive, but at least he won’t have to do it alone.
Hurst started mentoring Peterson from the moment Cooper graduated.
“I wanted to start getting inside his head, watching him practice in the spring, seeing what he brought to the table, seeing what he needed to work on,” Hurst said. “From that point of view, I tried to help him wherever I could. There’s a lot of different things you want to do early to try and motivate a guy and get him going, and I think he’s responded well. He’s a really hard worker, and he’s done everything he can do to be a good player this year.”
One key area of improvement has been Peterson’s footwork, which should allow him to play faster and with more confidence.
“The more reps you get, the better you’re able to let loose a little bit and play football instead of going out there and faking and analyzing during the play,” Bodine said. “He’s made huge strides, not only in just quickening up his feet this offseason, but he’s relaxed and been able to focus on playing football a little more.”
The other side of the line features a redshirt freshman, too. After a competition that lasted all of fall camp, Jon Heck emerged as the starter at right tackle over Kiaro Holts and Nick Appel. Holts was atop the depth chart after spring practice, but Heck won the job because he was more consistent during preseason practice.
There is some experience at right guard, though not much. Landon Turner, a sophomore, started the last four games of 2012 when Brennan Williams was lost for the season.
As it stands, North Carolina only has one senior starter. But Bodine has worked on becoming a more vocal leader now that he is one of the veterans on the line. Though he is the one in charge of making the line calls, he always relied on the more experienced players around him to provide leadership. Now his role has changed.
That means helping the young players along and being one of the leaders in film study as well. Every day during the summer, the linemen got together to watch game tape early in the mornings and formed a breakfast club, in which a group brought in breakfast every day for a week. Hurst and Bodine supplied sausage biscuits from McDonald’s, which kept their teammates happy.
In turn, the players were able to get to know each other better and that has translated onto better teamwork on the field.
“You can build chemistry off the field, and if you’re good friends, you want to play for that guy next to you just a little bit more,” Hurst said. “We started working on that this summer a little more. In camp, you could see the effectiveness of small things like that.”
Still, practices have been uneven because Kapilovic says the younger players do not quite know what it takes to be consistent every single day -- yet.
It could take several games before North Carolina feels comfortable up front. But there is no time to waste with such an important opener looming.