North Carolina’s offensive line was one of the lone bright spots in a football season to forget last year. The Tar Heels were effective in opening up lanes in the run game and only allowed 10 sacks on the whole season, good for 7th in the nation (though this was in part due to the quick, short-pass Larry Fedora offense). You can pretty much take everything about last year and throw it out the window, however, because this season is going to be very different.
For starters, the Tar Heels lost standout tackle William Sweet to the NFL. The All-ACC junior was signed to an undrafted free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals back in April, and will be looking to make the roster this month. On top of that, starting center Jay Jay McCargo announced his medical retirement during spring session. McCargo, who had battled a hand injury throughout last season, had been temporarily moved to guard in the hopes of eventually returning to his preferred spot, but the extent of the injury must have been worse than anticipated. All the best to both of them.
On top of that, of course, the new coaching staff will bring a stylistic overhaul to UNC’s offensive scheme. Much has been made of Phil Longo’s Air Raid Offense and to execute it, they’ll require a very different look from their O-line. The Air Raid spreads the line much more widely out in front of the QB, which can open up wide lanes for pass rushers, but also require edge rushers to cover more ground to get to the QB. This requires a more agile line and, as Chad noted in his analysis of the roster release, many players on the offensive line are now listed as lighter than they were last season.
Stacy Searels, who will be taking over as the offensive line coach, will come into Chapel Hill with a wealth of experience and prestige, though the more recent history leaves something to be desired. Searels, a 25-year veteran, was the OL coach at LSU when they won the national championship in 2003. He followed that up with successful stints at Georgia and Texas (the latter with Mack Brown). He’s familiar with the ACC as well, having coached at Virginia Tech and Miami most recently. However, his three years at Miami (2016-18) left something to be desired: The Hurricanes’ offensive line was a weak point in all three seasons. That said, Searels has been there before and then some. His comments during training camp also indicate that he knows which players to rely on, which brings us to...
Charlie Heck. Not even close. Heck has started 22 games for the Tar Heels already and was picked to the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy. He spent last season at right tackle, protecting lefty Nathan Elliot’s blind side. Indications out of camp are that this season he’ll be switching over to left tackle to protect the blind side of whichever quarterback wins the job. The senior’s leadership has drawn praise from both Searels and his fellow lineman, who reference his advice on technique. Nothing like strong veteran consistency in a transition year.
Along with Heck, Nick Polino is the other central returning veteran on the line (the two combine for 35 of the line’s 36 starts). With McCargo’s retirement, it looked for a while like Polino might assume center duties this season. However, the development of Brian Anderson, a sophomore who has made big strides in the offseason, allows Polino to return to his favored right guard position. Anderson is the starting center for the moment and Polino had some good words about how his teammate stepped up during the spring.
At right tackle will be Jordan Tucker, who has also drawn praise from his teammates, though he himself feels he can improve on his handwork and initial punch off the snap. He acknowledges that Mack Brown has been more demanding of the line, wanting them to get “tougher” and block effectively in the run game. Rounding out the line is Ed Montilus as left guard. The redshirt freshman earned the job through spring camp and cemented it this summer over several other competitors.
As with all offensive lines, the initial starting five is by no means set in stone and the early games of the season will reveal just which combination of players is most effective for UNC’s new-look offense. Tucker himself talked about the goal of finding eight key contributors for the season.
Likely candidates include William Barnes, who Searels admitted had struggled with weight issues in the past but shaved off 25(!!!) pounds in the offseason, so it’s fair to say he improved on that front. Billy Ross and Marcus McKeathan also saw some playing time last season and could look to expand on that this year, and Joshua Ezeudu also reportedly had a strong camp.
Incoming freshman include Triston Miller, Wyatt Tunall, Asim Richards, and Ty Murray.
The old adage in football is that everything starts up front and even when you’re playing the Air Raid, that is no exception. If UNC’s young line can show consistency, it’ll be a big step towards making this a bounce back season for Tar Heel Football.