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Welcome to the future of UNC football’s offensive line

Highlighting new faces on the offensive line we didn’t expect to see

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If I were an offensive lineman, I think I might blame Madden.

If you’re playing and Adrian Peterson goes down, you hit the reset button. No point continuing to try to be the Vikings if you don’t have Peterson. But if an offensive lineman gets injured? You just plow forward with whatever nameless dude with a number in the 60’s or 70’s the game throws at you and act like nothing happened, because for all practical purposes, it hasn’t.

It’s not just a video game thing, though. If you ever want to feel a cold blast of indifference as a head coach, try explaining on your weekly radio show that one reason things aren’t going as well as you’d have liked is that you’ve lost some offensive linemen. It’s one of those situations in which the fact that something is true does you no good. It’s comparable to the impact that yelling “I HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY” has on an oncoming Mack Truck. True? Maybe. Useful to point out? Not so much.

Which brings us to what may be the biggest X factor in how the Tar Heel football team will finish the season. As the season opened, UNC boasted one of the better, more experienced lines in the country. It lined up like this:

LT: Bentley Spain, Junior; 10 starts

LG: Caleb Peterson, Senior, 37 starts

C: Lucas Crowley, Senior, 26 starts

RG: John Ferranto, Senior, 17 starts

RT: Jon Heck, Senior, 38 starts

This is the kind of talent and experience that you dream about having up front. Peterson, Crowley, and Heck are all considered among the 10 best players at their positions in the country. Spain is considered to be among the top 10 in the junior class. Ferranto had been in heavy rotation since his freshman year and had completed a planned transition from tackle to guard. Every player had at least one full season as a starter.

Here’s what the position looked like at kickoff against Virginia (for a fair comparison, I’m not including 2016 starts):

LT: Bentley Spain, Junior; 10 starts

LG: Tommy Hatton, RS Freshman, 0 starts

C: Lucas Crowley, Senior, 26 starts

RG: RJ Prince, Junior, 0 starts

RT: William Sweet, RS Freshman, 0 starts

In half a season’s time, then, using prior starts as a metric, the entire starting offensive line went from having a massive 128 games worth of starting experience to having fewer combined starts than Peterson has alone. Even if Fedora and his staff don’t say much about it, this is a big deal, and it should add a shine to the 6-2 mark the team has posted to this point in the season.

For the Tar Heel line to stare down the roughest part of their schedule with constant changes to their lineup (and therefore the line’s chemistry) speaks highly of the resilience and mental toughness of the players and coaches. It has not, however, been painless.

Think back to the rash of safeties early in the season, or to our struggles in short yardage situations. Many fans tend to think of these being the result of bad play calls, but go back and take a look at many of those plays and you’ll often see one of the green offensive linemen simply whiff a block that would have made the play successful. You remember how many false starts there were at Miami? It wasn’t a coincidence that a player was getting his first meaningful snaps in a hostile environment.

Experience matters.

That said, if there’s an upside to all of the injuries, it’s that it ends up making inexperienced offensive linemen into experienced ones, and when that inexperience has talent, good things will begin to happen. Instead of beginning the 2017 season with four offensive linemen with no starting experience, they’ll have seasoned talent ready to step in. And this group has talent.

But since we didn’t start the season counting on them (and be honest, lots of you don’t pay attention to offensive linemen unless you have to), it might be helpful to learn a little more about the newcomers, as they will figure prominently in the team’s success or failure going forward.

RJ Prince, Junior, 6’-6”, 325 pounds, Albemarle, NC, right guard. We’ll start with Prince, since he’s the upperclassman of the newcomers, and the player on whom the most difficult demands have been placed. Prince was recruited as a tackle, conditioned as a tackle, is built like a tackle (yes, there’s a difference), and prior to this August had never been anything but a tackle on the UNC team. Although he has size, athleticism and talent, he may as well be a true freshman thrown to the wolves given what he has been asked to do.

Prince was something of a project even at his natural position, having moved straight from small town Albemarle (population 16,000) to power 5 football. Now he’s had to take on an entirely new position at that level and start over. The results, predictably, have been mixed. The position is now his to grow into, however, and with snaps the hope is that the flashes of potential he shows grow into a more consistent pattern. If they do, Prince may earn a starting role on the 2017; if not, he figures to return as a reserve, but a more useful one as his experience at two different positions will improve his versatility. Patience with Prince is the watchword here as he develops confidence.

Tommy Hatton, RS Freshman, 6’3”, 285 pounds, Glen Rock, NJ, left guard. Hatton was recruited to play center, and likely will step into that role in 2017 with Crowley’s departure. He was rated the #2 center in his class by ESPN. Hatton was moved to right guard after the injury to Ferranto in the preseason, where he beat out Prince and Brad Henson, only to need leave from the team in the early going. That’s what thrust Prince into the starter’s role.

By the time Hatton was ready to start again, Peterson went down, which required him to step in at left guard – so now Hatton is not only playing out of position, he’s doing it left-handed (though it can be fairly argued that since centers and guards are all interior linemen, the transition Hatton is doing is not as big as the one Prince has to do).

Again, as you’d expect, it hasn’t always gone smoothly, but Hatton has already begun to show flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit. He was named ACC offensive lineman of the week and co-rookie of the week after his performance at UVA. Not bad for a rookie making his third start. The guy is a stud in the making and has been worth the wait. His time at guard will make him a weapon with three years of college football ahead of him.

William Sweet, RS Freshman, 6’7”, 300 pounds, Jacksonville, Florida, right tackle. Reports seem to suggest that Jon Heck will be back in time for the Georgia Tech game, but Sweet’s worth discussing anyway, as he is a big part of the Tar Heels’ future. Sweet is the kind of person you’re just instantly jealous of. A 4-star recruit and a National Honor Society member coming out of high school – some people just aren’t fair (see also: Hood, Elijah) – Sweet was recruited by a slew of elite programs, including all of the big name programs in his home state of Florida.

He’s prepared chiefly at left tackle, but was called on to go to the right side in the Miami game when Heck went down with a head injury, which says something about the coaches’ confidence in his ability (and perhaps their thinking for the RT spot next season, when Spain is a senior holding down the left). The Miami game was a struggle, but Sweet, along with the rest of the line, showed significant improvement from that game.

The line as a whole limited blitz-happy Virginia to two sacks and opened holes for Hood and T.J. Logan, who averaged 6.7 and 6.1 yards per carry, respectively. Barring further injuries, you’ll probably see less of Sweet than the other new linemen, but when you do see him, you’re looking at the development of major contributor.

One sign of a program turning the corner is its ability to build depth and replace talent with talent. The North Carolina offensive line is not the strength it was expected to be, but it is a reflection of where things are headed that although experience is irreplaceable, there’s real talent stepping in, developing, and building towards a future that has a chance to be as good or better than the present.

It’s what progress looks like.