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2017 UNC Football Preview: Offensive line

How will the Tar Heels protect the new players in the offense?

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been written about the fact that the UNC offense will have to find a way to replace over 98% of its offensive production from 2016. With the loss of arguably the most gifted quarterback in Tar Heel history, plus two drafted running backs and four-year standouts Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins, that’s understandable.

But for all of that talent, North Carolina quietly produced its lowest scoring average of the Fedora era in 2016. Looking back on it, there were several games in which the much-maligned defense played well enough to win, and the offense simply didn’t, including Duke (27-28), NCSU (21-28), and Stanford (23-25). The most common explanations tend to point to “skill” players. You’ve probably heard it: Hollins got hurt, and no one else could take the top off of a defense, so everything clogged up.

A better place to look, though, is far more fundamental. If you want to understand the primary reason that a very good 2016 Tar Heels offense never approached greatness despite all of the talent at “skill” positions, take a moment to review the failed 2 point conversion against Stanford (warning: may not be suitable for young viewers).

For those of you who can’t bear to watch it again, here’s what you would have seen: Solomon Thomas, who would later become the #3 overall pick in the NFL draft, rips through the UNC offensive line with ease. Solomon is on Trubisky so quickly that he could nearly have taken the snap from center. There is no play call, no senior wide receiver, and no other trick in the book that provides a useful answer to a defensive tackle having his hands on your quarterback a nanosecond after the word “hike” is shouted.

It all started with John Ferranto. Ferranto, a fifth-year senior slated to start at right guard, lost his final season to a pectoral injury before preseason camp was over. That meant that Tommy Hatton, who had been slated to serve as a backup center, had to slide out to start at guard.

That went just fine until left guard Caleb Peterson went down for the season, meaning that Hatton had to now move to left guard, and RJ Prince, the third string right guard, would be thrust into a starting role that neither he nor the coaching staff was quite ready for. Throw in the more ordinary injuries that happened on the line as the season went on, and what had looked in the preseason like an offensive line that had experience and promise quickly became a damage control project.

The UNC backfield and receivers were every bit as good as advertised—or so the NFL seems to have thought, anyway—but it is a fundamental truth of football that success or failure starts up front, and what the Tar Heels had left there could not match what it had elsewhere on offense.

In 2017, there are no surefire NFL quarterbacks, receivers, or running backs left to cover for weak play on the offensive line. If Brandon Harris is going to reinvent himself, and if Michael Carter, Stanton Truitt, and Jordan Brown are going to show the path forward, and if the receiving corps is going to refresh its talent, the nearly nameless, faceless guys on the O-line will need to take a major step forward in 2017.

Fortunately, there’s good news on this front. Even after the regrettable departure of USC graduate transfer Khaliel Rodgers, the UNC offensive line, on paper, is loaded. Begin with the fact that Rodgers’ departure is mitigated by the surprise reappearance of Jared Cohen, the one-time four-star recruit who played admirably as a true freshman, only to leave the team to deal with personal issues, and reappear as a walk-on this summer.

The expected starting five—Senior Bentley Spain, Hatton, graduate transfer Cam Dillard, Nick Polino (or Cohen, if he returns to form quickly), and William Sweet—are all highly regarded, experienced players. Should the injury bug strike again, for the first time in recent memory, experienced talent stands ready to step in, including Prince (whose trial-by-fire last season will pay off this year), Charlie Heck, and whichever of Cohen or Polino does not win a starting position.

Whether sophomore Mason Veal is ready to contribute is unclear, but it would take injuries that extend beyond these nine players before OL coach Chris Kapilovic will have to worry about whether freshmen like Jonah Melton, Jay Jay McCargo, Jordan Tucker, Billy Ross, Marcus McKeithan and Tyler Pritchett are ready.

Pause on that for a moment. The Tar Heels have often had to rely on early contributions from players like Spain, Hatton, and others too early in their maturation into college football players. However, UNC now has nine capable players on the line who would have to go down before uncomfortable conversations about freshmen linemen have to be undertaken. The existence of solid talent—present and future—is a positive signal for the development of UNC football as a program.

In 2017, there are many questions to be answered on offense. Are Harris’ mixed results at LSU the product of his limitations, or of being a square peg forced into the round hole of an out-of-date Tiger offense? Are Anthony Ratliff, Dazz Newsome, Jordan Cunningham, and Juval Mollette capable of reinvigorating the receiving corps? Is Brandon Fritts going to finally be healthy enough to realize his potential? Is Michael Carter or one of his cohorts capable of being an elite ACC running back?

The unforgiving fundamentals of football say that none of those questions can be answered very well unless five guys whose jerseys no one ever buys do what they do with little recognition or fanfare very, very well. The good news is that there’s every reason to expect that they will.