A lot of things went wrong for UNC Football in the 2021 season, but you could pretty easily argue that chief among them was the offensive line. They returned all five starters from possibly UNC’s greatest offensive season ever, and while it was clear that the primary reasons for that success were Sam Howell and 4 NFL Draft picks at the skill positions, the offensive line along for that ride couldn’t have been worse than average. With another year to build cohesion and chemistry under their belts, they were probably the ACC’s longest-standing offensive line fivesome and should have been one of the conference’s better units, helping protect Howell as he figured out how to make his magic work with new surrounding cast members. Instead, they regressed wildly, allowing more sacks than in any UNC season prior and consistently looking unable to generate push in a run game that seemed to succeed despite rather than because of them. The UNC offense ended up being serviceable, but definitely underwhelmed in Howell’s last season, and it was pretty one-dimensional, mostly relying on the tremendous talents of either Howell or Josh Downs. As a result of his unit’s shockingly poor performance, offensive line coach Stacy Searels was — wait, no, this can’t be right — publicly defended and retained by Mack Brown before being hired away by Kirby Smart for the same position at National Championship-winning Georgia, because coaches, even at the highest levels of the sport, are dumb. Brown moved quickly to hire a replacement, and found his (and offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s) man in Jack Bicknell, who’d been at Louisville and at Ole Miss with Longo prior to that. He’ll try and reverse the offensive line’s trajectory in Chapel Hill this upcoming season. Let’s see what he’s working with:
Though they may have had the opportunity to take a super-senior year and return to campus, left guard Joshua Ezeudu, right guard Marcus McKethan, and right tackle Jordan Tucker all declared their intentions to leave Chapel Hill and enter the NFL Draft. Ezeudu was picked in the 3rd round and McKethan was taken in the 5th, both by the New York Giants. Ezeudu is turning a lot of heads in camp and might have a chance to start by the end of the preseason, from the sound of it, while McKethan, unfortunately, suffered a torn ACL on Friday and will miss the entirety of his rookie season. Tucker signed a UDFA deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is trying to stand out in training camp; it’s hard to see much about him with a cursory search because “Jordan Tucker” isn’t exactly a search-friendly name.
Elsewhere, former walk-on center and sometime 2021 starter Quiron Johnson was initially set to return, but has since decided to medically retire from football.
I guess I can also mention Searels as a key departure. I’m far from alone in thinking he’s not very good at his job — every place he’s left for at least the last 10 years, the fanbase seems to have been more than happy to see him go — despite the fact that he never seems to get fired for poor performance. At UNC, he seems to have mandated weights for his linemen that were at least 20 pounds above where they should’ve been playing, which was bad enough on its own but egregious when paired with the zone blocking scheme we’ve seen at UNC. His linemen regressed in technique and functional strength every year he was in Chapel Hill and their chemistry never improved, making stunts and twists far more troublesome than they should have been. He also seemed particularly lost on how to coach RPO blocking, a staple of Phil Longo’s offense. I’m still baffled at how he got promoted to the most desirable job at his position in the country. I don’t mean to make a definitive statement about Searels — I’m certainly no authority on coaching and I don’t know what the situation was between him and his players or between him and his offensive coordinator, so maybe there was stuff going on that stopped him from doing what he really wanted and he’ll thrive in Athens — but I’m hard-pressed to point to anything he did well as UNC’s offensive line coach. If there is hope for this position group to do a 180 from last year, it is that they will almost necessarily be better-coached than they were a season ago.
The other two starters from 2021’s offensive line are senior left tackle Asim Richards and center Brian Anderson, who’s back for a super-senior year after an injury-plagued 2021. Anderson was a welcome surprise in 2020, being named an All-ACC Honorable Mention after a rough 2019. His 2021 was a setback, however; whether it was due to injury, coaching, or just regression to the mean (or a combination thereof), Anderson was ineffective at best when he was able to get on the field and the center position was one of UNC’s weakest spots all year. He’ll fight to regain his 2020 form and retain his starting spot in 2022.
Richards was a project as a recruit who was pressed into starting duty earlier in his career than I think the coaching staff would’ve liked, and as a result he developed some bad, panicky habits that he hasn’t yet gotten rid of. The Heels’ coaching staff made efforts to hide him whenever they could afford to last year, giving Ezeudu plenty of snaps at left tackle and putting Ed Montilus at guard, but Ezeudu was clearly best at guard and you want your best players doing what they do best. Richards is now the most experienced Heel on the line and will be counted on to have reinvented himself under new coaching, because there doesn’t really seem to be a backup plan at left tackle on the roster. The aforementioned Montilus returns as the favorite to start at left guard, where he’s played a lot of spot snaps over the last 3 years for UNC and always been at least serviceable, sometimes very good.
William Barnes’ name has come up a lot this offseason; the former blue-chip recruit had never really gotten the favor of his coaches until this offseason, where he’s been raved about as somebody who’s really put it together and made a name for himself. The senior can play either tackle or guard and will definitely be in the rotation at one or both of the right-side spots, if not starting.
The Heels added two graduate transfer offensive linemen pretty immediately after losing 60% of their starting line: tackle Spencer Rolland from Harvard and center Corey Gaynor from Miami. Rolland was first-team All-Ivy League last year as Harvard’s starting right tackle and appears ready for a jump in competition level, and he’s going to make a strong case to start at right tackle. Gaynor, after a season and a half of starting at center for the Hurricanes, was injured midway through last year, and once his younger replacement thrived in starting duty, didn’t see the field much for the rest of the year. He’s a good player, though, and he’s threatening Anderson’s starting spot and might even already have the inside track on it. He’s definitely made an impression as a player and a leader in the locker room, from the quotes we’ve seen coming out.
UNC also adds true freshman Zach Rice, who was the top offensive tackle recruit in the country last year, and he’s already threatening to start on the right side, at either tackle or guard. Every word I’ve seen written about him has been glowing and we’re sure to see a lot of him in the offensive line rotation, and as a stalwart piece on UNC’s offensive lines of the future. He could even start on the right side at either position, which is legitimately insane for a true freshman on the offensive line regardless of ranking.
And heading everything up is new coach Jack Bicknell, who improved Louisville’s line from terrible to among the ACC’s best in his two years there. Before that, he’s had myriad stops around the country, including a couple stints in the NFL and two years at Ole Miss with Longo, adding to the familiarity that Mack Brown’s been looking to maximize in his coaching staff this year. His recent track record is good and he’s already apparently making some major changes to the way offensive line play is being taught and schemed, cutting down on vertical sets in his pass protection calls and asking his linemen to set aggressively and force the issue rather than reacting to pass-rush moves.
This year’s UNC offensive line is definitely going to be different from what we’ve seen, and some would say that can only be a good thing after what we saw last year. It’s probably the most unknown position group on the roster, between the possible 80% turnover (including two transfers) and a new position coordinator. It’s a lot to get organized in just one offseason, but early reports have been encouraging, and not just in the way that Mack Brown’s offseasons have engendered endless optimism because he’s good at fostering it. This line’s got it all — veteran starters with a shot at redefining their legacy, career backups taking advantage of their time to shine, transfers looking to (re-)prove themselves as legitimate players in Power 5 competition, and a new kid who’s already looking like he won’t be denied a spot on the field. It looks like a change in coaching and approach is allowing a lot of those narratives to turn the way we’d like them to, but there’s a lot of unknown and a lot of room for failure within those stories. We can only look forward to August 27th to start seeing what we’re going to get.