Well, until further notice, I guess we’re still doing this. Last year, UNC’s offensive line had its ups and downs. They powered a rushing attack that nearly led to two 1,000-yard rushers, but they also allowed 37 sacks over just 13 games and experienced pretty significant turnover throughout the season. It didn’t stop Sam Howell from having one of the best true freshman seasons ever, but it definitely didn’t help, and as the offense looks to take a step forward this year, the line is going to have to improve for that to be possible. Let’s take a look at what the Heels are working with up front:
The loss that will be felt most on UNC’s offense is that of Charlie Heck, the starting left tackle who graduated last year and was drafted in the 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. His NFL future is uncertain on a roster filled with backup tackles, but there’s no denying that he was a stalwart for the Heels and will be tough to replace. Do-it-all swingman Nick Polino has also graduated after years of filling in admirably at just about any position he was asked to, leaving UNC with a depth problem in terms of guys who can play multiple positions along the line.
The other four players who finished out the season as starters all return: Sophomore left guard Josh Ezeudu, junior center Brian Anderson, right guard Marcus McKethan, and right tackle Jordan Tucker. The guards were both very good last year — Ezeudu won the starting job late in the season after putting in a ton of work as a true freshman and McKethan was named UNC’s most consistent lineman by several of his teammates (Heck’s hand injury made him ineligible, I guess). He allowed just two sacks over the course of the season and should be considered UNC’s best offensive lineman this year. After some talk that Ezeudu might shift over to left tackle, it seems like he’ll be sticking at guard, and according to Tucker, he’s gotten to be just as good as McKethan on the other side. Tucker was good, too — he actually finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player on the line, and even though he was a little leakier than the guards were, he’s got some nasty to him that UNC offensive lines have desperately needed. He was second on the team in knockdowns to Heck, according to his GoHeels profile, and is a very good finisher. Anderson was the position group’s weakest link last year; he’s clearly an intelligent player and didn’t have trouble snapping the ball but was just physically overwhelmed far too often up the middle, leading to pressure that Sam Howell couldn’t really get away from. He could have improved after a year of starting, of course, but his spot is probably the most vulnerable of the returnees’.
Mack Brown and Phil Longo, for reasons that mostly elude me, like rotating their offensive linemen when the talent gap between 1st string and 2nd string isn’t that big. I think it impairs cohesion, they seem to think it furthers development. Both could be true, and I’m not going to argue the point, but one thing that does mean is we have more of an impression of last year’s non-starters than we would on most other teams. The two biggest names in this group are redshirt freshman Asim Richards and redshirt sophomore Ed Montilus. Richards is, after a year of playing experience and college weight training, slotted to start at left tackle after Heck’s departure, according to the team’s recent Training Camp interviews. He’s talked a lot about how much Heck and Tucker helped him learn the offensive scheme and mental aspects of playing left tackle, so that’s something to look for - he’s got fantastic athleticism for a tackle, but played pretty light last year and got bulled too often to be comfortable with. UNC’s roster now has him listed at 305 pounds, so that might be a sign of good change. Montilus started the 2019 season starting at left guard before being benched in favor of Ezeudu. He started the season really well next to Heck, but his play declined over the course of the season. If he can get back to that early form and maintain his conditioning, he could slip into the line without much of a drop in play.
Redshirt sophomore William Barnes is, I believe, the offensive lineman who was rated highest among the position group. He’s looked really impressive in limited snaps at guard the past two years, but word is that he struggled to handle the scheme change from Larry Fedora’s spread to Phil Longo’s Air Raid more than most. He’s got the body and technique to dominate, though, if he can get the playbook down. Longo mentioned him as a potential starter at left guard back in April, and while that probably won’t happen now with Ezeudu staying at the position, he may well get extended snaps. And finally, junior Billy Ross kind of fills the Polino spot; he can play any of the three interior spots in a pinch but probably isn’t a starting-caliber player.
As alluded to above, the position that’s most up for grabs on UNC’s line right now is the center spot. Anderson would love to hold on to his starting position from last year, but he’s being challenged by redshirt freshman Ty Murray, who’s already splitting first-team reps with Anderson according to Tucker. Murray already endeared himself to UNC fans last year with the below GIF from his action against NC State, and you can’t find an evaluation of him anywhere that doesn’t mention his edge. I think he’s got a real shot to be the Day 1 starter, and if that happens, we get to see more of this:
Fellow redshirt freshmen Triston Miller and Wyatt Tunall might also see time, especially Miller, who’s absurdly talented from looking at his high school film.
It’s hard to expect true freshman offensive linemen to make immediate impacts, because of the weight training that incoming freshmen so often need to be able to bang around in the trenches of college football. That said, Longo mentioned Jonathan Adorno as somebody he liked in the battle for the center position back in April. He isn’t splitting reps with Murray and Anderson now, it would seem, but he could rotate in over the course of the season. Does that speak to his college readiness, UNC’s lightness at the position, or a little of both? I’ll let you decide. UNC’s 2020 class also includes offensive tackles Cayden Baker and Trey Zimmerman and guard Malik McGowan.
The biggest determinant of an offensive line’s success is year-over-year continuity, unless you have a truly legendary offensive line coach. Stacy Searels, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach, did some good things with new players adjusting to a new scheme last year and has coached some good lines, but hasn’t been anywhere longer than 3 years since the turn of the millennium — it’s not an insult to say he’s probably not in the elite tier there. Returning at least three starters is pretty good for this group, and the right side looks particularly good for returning McKethan and Tucker. The left is a bit more of a question mark, because Ezeudu only started a few games last year and doesn’t have the same rapport with Richards, who’s replacing an NFL-level talent. But both of them have shown themselves to be good players, and if Richards’ weight gain is legit and hasn’t hampered his movement, the left side of the line should be at least solid. Center remains the concern here, and it’s not one that’s easily neutralized: you can use tight ends and running backs to help tackles with edge rushers, but pressure up the middle is hard to avoid or plan around. Especially towards the end of the season, UNC put together masterful offensive performances even with this weakness, because the nature of line play is that if they’re at all serviceable, offensive linemen win most of the time, so it’s not a make-or-break weakness for this offense, which should still be very good. But if it hasn’t improved, it does have the ability to hold them back from greatness. It should be the spot on offense where all eyes are focused to see if this team can reach its lofty 2020 expectations. (well, if there’s a 2020 season)
Check out our other positional breakdowns if you haven’t already!