Perhaps no position group felt last year’s injury plague worse for the Tar Heels than the offensive line. Every single one of UNC’s projected starters, and a significant chunk of the depth, was lost for a significant amount of time: Bentley Spain missed a month, William Sweet missed the whole season after an injury in Game 3, Tommy Hatton retired from football after missing the majority of the season with concussion issues, Luke Elder was lost for the season early, Cam Dillard missed a game and played injured in most of the others... it wasn’t pretty. A unit that was expected to be the offense’s anchor after nearly all of the skill positions had to be replaced wholesale became another headache due to its inability to build chemistry until the last 2-3 games of the season.
This year, the expectations around the offensive line are almost the exact opposite of what they were last year. Nearly all the leadership and experience on the line has left: Spain, Dillard, Khaliel Rodgers, and R.J. Prince, all multi-year starters, have graduated, leaving just 19 starts among the remaining players in the room. But while it will inevitably be a growing season, and the unit will certainly have its share of bumps on the road as they learn to play together, there is reason for optimism, because on paper, the group that Larry Fedora and Chris Kapilovic have with them this season is one of the most exciting groups of offensive linemen the two have ever had in Chapel Hill. Playing offensive line is just as much about chemistry as it is skill and athleticism, but once the former is developed, watch out for these guys, because they have the latter parts covered in spades.
The outside positions on the line are a tad more settled than the interior. William Sweet and Charlie Heck should open the season as bookend tackles, and there’s a lot to like about both of them. Both are primed for excellent seasons but have gotten to this point in polar opposite ways. Sweet is the higher-profile of the two; the redshirt junior was one of the best tackles in the country in his high school class (24th according to the 247 Composite), excelled in somewhat limited action in 2016, his first year seeing action, and then dominated whoever was across from him against Cal and Louisville before tearing his ACL against Old Dominion. He’s also drawn praise off the field, receiving the University’s inaugural McKissick Award for student advocacy last year. According to the coaches, Sweet is currently moving around with “confidence” and should be 100% for fall practice and the season opener. If that means he’s anything like he showed last year, opposing pass rushers should worry. Sweet is skilled, athletic, and while he’s not the nastiest lineman you’ll see, he’s not afraid to add a little oomph to a block: According to GoHeels.com, Sweet recorded 6 “knockdown blocks” against both Cal and Louisville.
Heck, on the other hand, arrived on campus with very little fanfare. Though he is the younger brother of UNC four-year starter Jon Heck, Charlie was a converted tight end who didn’t have a recruiting profile on 247 when he committed to UNC (they’ve since added one showing a composite rating of low 3-star) and who had never played offensive tackle in his life. He was a developmental recruit and last year was just his second year of eligibility, but after he was pushed into service due to Sweet’s injury, he started 11 games at right tackle (remember, with two left-handed quarterbacks, the right tackle is the blindside protector) and his development accelerated dramatically. He had some major hiccups early in the season, but in the finale against N.C. State, he held Bradley Chubb sackless. That’s a big deal. While he isn’t as polished as his bookend on the line, Heck is plenty athletic, being a former tight end, and has all the nasty that Sweet sometimes doesn’t: He recorded 10 knockdowns against Louisville, 9 against Georgia Tech, and 6 against Miami.
Backing them up is redshirt freshman Jordan Tucker, who may have played some last season had it not been for injury. That the staff was prepared to play him despite his true freshman status should tell you all you need to know: he’s good. His ranking was a modest 3-star, but the coaches clearly believe in him to produce positively. We’ll see a bit of him this year on substitute and goal-line packages. Swingmen Mason Veal (junior) and Marcus McKethan (sophomore) bring up the rear as serviceable stopgaps at tackle, their original position.
There’s a lot more uncertainty here, as nobody in this position group has really been an established starter for UNC. Junior Nick Polino is the favorite to play right guard, where he started 3 games last year after the aforementioned injury rash pushed him into service. He’s a solid player; the staff graded him highly in several games last year and he’s remarkably consistent. He isn’t an All-ACC candidate like I believe the two tackles are, but he certainly isn’t a liability. The other two interior positions, though, will likely be manned by first-timers after the departures of Dillard at center and Rodgers at left guard. Of the two, the center position seems more settled, due at least in part to a relative lack of options. Jay Jay McCargo, a redshirt sophomore who missed last year with injury, is the presumed starter. And while he’s an exciting player, having been recruited as a tackle (and he was a highly coveted one) before finding an even better fit on the inside, there isn’t a ton behind him. Redshirt freshman Brian Anderson was a decently rated recruit with a respectable offer list (and an excellent offensive line name), but the staff did not feel that he was ready to play last year. With a year of NCAA coaching, he’s probably ready for spot snaps here and there, but he likely hasn’t improved to a point where he can play for any meaningful stretch of time. The only other center on the roster is walk-on Jonathan Trull.
The right guard starting slot has been described as “wide open.” Redshirt freshman Billy Ross has impressed the coaches in spring practice, but he’s by no means a frontrunner for the spot. Sophomore Tyler Pritchett has some experience at the position, and now that he’s on campus, 5-star freshman William Barnes will challenge to start there as well. Barnes was recruited as a tackle, but he has the phone-booth skills to play guard just as well. According to the above-linked article, Marcus McKethan is going to be given a shot at right guard as well. We haven’t seen much of anything from any of these guys, but I feel that this is as good a spot as any to remind everybody of this clip of Barnes during the Army All-American Bowl practices:
I’m most skittish about the prospect of McKethan starting, because he’s only just learning to play guard, as opposed to the other three, who have some experience with it. Among those three, though, all have the pedigree to be at least serviceable, and in the cases of Barnes and Ross, their future prospects look very good. The question is how long that will take to be realized.
With the announcement that Antonio Williams will be eligible to play in 2018, coupled with the uncertainty at quarterback, the offensive line will be key in both opening up a potentially lethal run game and, sequentially, giving whoever the quarterback is enough time to process and execute based on what’s in front of him. This unit certainly has the ability to do so, with just one question mark, at left guard, and even that’s based on inexperience rather than lack of ability. I’ll take that without looking back. If the staff can do anything close to what they did with Heck last year, this could be one heck of a position group, and for UNC to have success in 2018, it needs to be.