- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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North Carolina coach Larry Fedora gave his offensive line about a 'C' grade after its opener against Liberty, which could be either an indictment of a unit that was far more talented than its competition or praise for a group that was breaking in three new starters.
Either way, Fedora said, things have to get better in Week 2.
It’s not that the line performed poorly for the Tar Heels. The unit, which Fedora repeatedly touted throughout fall camp as the biggest question mark on the team, allowed just one sack -- midway through the third quarter with backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the game -- and opened some running lanes for the tailbacks, which averaged 5 yards per carry.
But with San Diego State next up on the schedule, Fedora said, the test gets much bigger this week.
"The chaos that they try to create with their movement, their blitzes, all the different things that they do on that side of the ball will be an issue," Fedora said. "It’s a concern to see how our guys will handle it."
With starting left guard Caleb Peterson out with an injury, Will Dancy made his first start in the opener against Liberty. Tackle John Ferranto started for the first time, too, and center Lucas Crowley made just the second start of his career. The lack of experience didn’t keep UNC’s offense from racking up 443 yards or running a whopping 93 plays -- sixth most by any Power 5 conference team in Week 1 -- but the unit didn’t always look completely cohesive.
One of Fedora’s offseason mantras was smarter play, and he preached again and again that North Carolina would trim the high number of penalties it racked up last season. There was little progress on that front in Week 1, and the line was a big reason. The line was flagged five times for false starts.
Chalk it up to a learning experience, but Fedora said those lessons need to take hold this week.
San Diego State defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s philosophy is predicated on confusion, and that could make for a tough matchup for a young line.
"Rocky is very innovative on defense," Fedora said. "It’s a very unique style of defense, and his guys adapt to it very well. There are a lot of movements, a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos created for a young offensive line, and so that definitely is a concern for us."
Film study this week helps, but even that has its limitations, Fedora said.
"It’s not like you can zero in on one thing," he said. "Our guys are going to have to prepare for a lot of different looks."
In other words, expect the unexpected.
It’s enough to have Fedora worried, but the Aztecs also figure to present a nice barometer of just how far the Tar Heels' offensive line has come. With a difficult four-game stretch against East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame upcoming, Fedora knows that mediocre performance against Liberty won’t be enough to carry the Tar Heels too far into ACC play.
But Fedora isn’t expecting perfection yet, just progress.
"I want them just to see them improve a little bit each week," Fedora said. "We don't have to be end-of-the-season, at our best right now, but we do need to see improvement, and the style of defense that San Diego State runs makes it very difficult for a young offensive line."