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UNC Football Position Previews: Offensive Line

UNC returns all 5 starters from last year’s group, and they’re hoping to take the next step

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has been made, and will continue to be made until the season starts on September 3rd, about the offensive production that UNC is losing from 2020 to 2021, as the 2020 team featured 4 NFL draft picks who accounted for well over 4000 combined yards of offense. My colleagues have written about who’s in line to replace them at running back and receiver, and of course, a guy by the name of Sam Howell is still in place under center. But a returning quarterback alone, even one as good as Howell, isn’t enough to inspire confidence that a previous year’s production can be replicated — that’s gotta be part of the reason Mitch Trubisky left for the draft after just a year of starting. But returning alongside Howell are all five starters on the offensive line that helped him architect the record year that was 2020, and after a full year of starting together, they’re poised to take a step into being one of the ACC’s best units and provide the offense the support it needs to continue being among the nation’s elite. It’s time to take a look at the guys up front for the Tar Heels and what we can expect out of them this season.

Starters:

As I said, for the first time in what seems like several years, UNC will enter a season returning an entire offensive line unit from a year ago. The members of that unit are sophomore Asim Richards at left tackle, junior Joshua Ezeudu at left guard, senior Brian Anderson at center, senior Marcus McKethan at right guard, and senior Jordan Tucker at right tackle. Ezeudu, McKethan, and Tucker were already entrenched starters, while Richards and Anderson had some experience in their positions (Anderson more than Richards) before transitioning to them as full-time starters in the 2020 offseason.

Anderson had a tough time when he played center in 2019, repeatedly getting bulled and causing early pressure up the middle for a freshman Sam Howell. But he massively improved for the 2020 season — he’s still not the strongest player, but he worked out enough to get his strength to a functional level and massively improved his technique to the point of being an above-average ACC center as a pass protector and just about average in the run game, which is a big win for him. I suspect he’s more or less hit his ceiling, but that’s a pretty rare accomplishment, and he certainly isn’t going to lose you games.

Richards, meanwhile, had a pretty rough year. He’s uber-athletic and has the arms and foot quickness to play tackle at a high level, but he wasn’t strong enough to hold up with his technique still a work in progress for most of the year, and he frequently needed help from Ezeudu to keep his quarterback clean in the passing game. He was less visible in the run game, but this may have been because Phil Longo avoided running off the left tackle whenever he could avoid it. With a full offseason to work out, gain weight and strength, and refine his technique at a position he hadn’t played much before college, he’s got room to get much better with his hands and feet, and he’ll need to for UNC to reach the heights they’ve got their eyes set on this year — a line is only as good as its weakest link. Given Anderson’s jump from Year 1 to Year 2, though, I think that’s something that can be reasonably expected.

Tucker and McKethan are basically twins on the right side of the line, and they are absolute road graders. Longo called a ton of split zone and outside zone right in the run game and they got him his money’s worth, clearing up their side of the line of scrimmage all season while Anderson and/or Ezeudu used their foot speed to pull and effectively get to the second level. Both are mammoth human beings, standing at around 6’6-6’7 and weighing 340 pounds or so, and defensive linemen absolutely felt that weight behind their punches. They played a huge part especially in the unprecedentedly successful season on the ground that UNC had in 2020, and they’ll probably be relied on even more now that Longo doesn’t have two of the best backs in the country at his disposal. On the flip side of the coin, though, most of the pressure that Howell faced last year also came from the right side of the line. Some of that is just due to Howell’s tendencies — when he drifts or breaks the pocket he does it to the right and makes that side of the job harder — but some of it is also due to all that weight impacting their mobility, especially Tucker’s, against athletic pass rushers. They were still good in pass protection, but they have the ability to be really great if they can improve their foot quickness (losing ~15-20 pounds apiece would probably do that on its own) and get more consistent with their punch timing. And with Howell needing to establish connections with new receivers, really great protection would be an absolute boon.

Ezeudu is easily the best player on UNC’s line, and is a contender for best player on UNC’s roster, even challenging Howell in my opinion. He’s that good. He’s played every position but center for the Heels in his two years of playing and excelled at all of them; scout Brad Kelly was salivating over this rep at right tackle in the UVA game this past year:

It was in large part thanks to Ezeudu’s ability to simultaneously block his man and help out his tackle that Richards’ struggles weren’t debilitating to the UNC offense in the passing game, where Ezeudu really shines. He’s fine in the run game (see above) but isn’t a bully the way the best run blockers are, but as a pass blocker, his size and length on the inside (he’s clearly got the length to play tackle, but excels at guard with his ability to help out on either side of him) and refined technique give him the ability to stonewall whomever is coming at him, and that will be vital against an ACC with a lot of good interior pass rush. Ezeudu was an All-ACC Third Team selection last year, and that seemed low even at the time. With several of the players ahead of him drafted, he’ll be one of the conference’s best offensive linemen, challenging for first-team honors along with a few others.

Rotation:

I’ll spend fewer words here. The two non-starters who got significant snaps on the line last year were Ed Montilus and Quiron Johnson. Montilus, a junior, was a starter for several games as a sophomore before Ezeudu took his spot, and has spent his career with UNC since then as a backup swing guard, though he’s more comfortable on the left. He’s a boomstick-layer through and through, but struggles against quicker players and stunts. Overall, he’s a really good player to have in a pinch and can patch up holes in the interior caused by injury or other unavailability. Johnson was a preferred walk-on at the center position, but became the primary backup after impressing against Wake Forest when Anderson was forced to miss time, and has been awarded a scholarship for this, his senior year. After walking on to the team, it’s impressive that he is what he is, which is a backup-caliber center on a high-level college football squad. He doesn’t get immediately run over and he understands how and where to move in the run game, which makes the offense able to run if its starting center isn’t available for a short amount of time.

Mack Brown and Phil Longo have spent a decent amount of time the past few years lamenting the fact that they have fallen short of the target 8-10 players they’d like to feel comfortable with playing on the offensive line. One of the major culprits for this has been junior William Barnes, who was one of Larry Fedora’s highest-rated recruits out of high school and oozed potential at the time. Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, though, reports were always that he was having trouble putting it together, whether that meant maintaining focus, adjusting to the college game, adjusting to a new coaching staff, or something else. He showed flashes in spot snaps his freshman year, but hasn’t seen the field much at all since then. This offseason, though, coaches have been absolutely raving about him, and it seems that he’s finally at least cracked the rotation and should see at least some snaps this year in relief. He’s the only one of the three backups with the theoretical ability to play tackle, which gives the coaches more options in case of emergency, and the traits that made him a highly coveted recruit as a high schooler haven’t disappeared — if he’s truly gotten the mental side of the college game down after all this time, he could become more of a factor.

The Future:

Out of everybody I’ve listed so far, only Richards is an underclassman. It’s worth noting that I’ve listed players’ class based on their experience, but thanks to the COVID-induced eligibility freeze, none of these players run out of eligibility after this year. So they could be around for longer than their upperclassman status might imply — but I don’t think that’s worth entertaining. Even beyond NFL Draft implications, we saw this past year that it’s rare that guys want to keep playing college football past the time they were supposed to be done; at some point they’re ready for the next part of their lives. Thus, that leaves the underclassman offensive linemen on the roster, the ones whom Mack Brown and his staff have recruited, who won’t see a ton of action this year but will be counted on in the next two to make sure the UNC offense stays as good as it is right now. The most notable name in the bunch is right tackle Diego Pounds, who was a high three-star recruit in the 2021 class out of Millbrook High School in Raleigh, and who’s already started turning heads since he got on campus in January. He’s already on the three-deep roster, according to Inside Carolina, and that’s pretty impressive as a true freshman. The other underclassmen on the three-deep are both sophomores: guard Jonathan Adorno, who was a three-star recruit out of Rolesville, and left tackle Cayden Baker, who was a three-star recruit out of Florida. Beyond them, Wisdom Asaboro is a name that gets tossed around; he’s a massive, toolsy sophomore who’s only been playing football a few years but could be a great tackle if he takes well enough to coaching. There’s not much else we know about the back of the roster.

Final Thoughts:

When ESPN’s David Hale did his annual ranking of all the ACC teams’ position groups, he ranked UNC’s offensive line 3rd in the conference, behind Virginia and Virginia Tech. He didn’t have much to say about them (though he did note that UNC was best in the conference at yards before contact running left), but it’s a statement of confidence, because UVA’s offensive line has been together for more than two years (and putting up numbers!) and Tech’s line plus Christian Darrisaw (now in the NFL) pretty much did for Khalil Herbert what UNC’s did for Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, except for a slightly worse back and without a Heisman candidate at quarterback. It’s abundantly clear that this is at the very least a good offensive line that will provide for a successful offensive season. But good isn’t really enough if UNC’s going to challenge a revamped Miami team for the Coastal, get revenge on Notre Dame, and stand a chance to win an ACC Championship and/or a big-time bowl game. The group has the ability to be great with just a little bit of growth, and the Heels are going to need that to compete at the highest level. Where they are as of now, though, they can still help the Heels be pretty dang good.