North Carolina's offensive line can give relief to other starters
CHARLOTTE — In college sports, rosters are like revolving doors.
Players come and go over four year spans, doing their best to mesh with teammates that are changing, too. In limited time, they try to get — and stay — on the same page. The success stories can produce well-oiled machines. The failures can be as poorly executed as a children’s theater production.
In some cases, it’s not all that bad. Take the 2016 North Carolina football team. It lost its starting quarterback but replaced him with an understudy who had been waiting in the wings for three years.
2017 is a different story.
“I've never — in all my years, I think it's around 18 years of running this offense — I've never experienced this,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “It's a little bit unknown for me.”
When the Tar Heels take the field on Sep. 2, their offense will be a redone unit. Seven starters need to be replaced, including six skill-position players — Mitchell Trubisky, Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan, Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard. To put those losses into perspective, take a look at the UNC record books.
Trubisky cemented his name among UNC royalty in a little over one full season at the helm. He comes in at sixth all time in passing yards (4,762), first in single-season passing yardage (3,748) and first in single-season total offense (4,056). He adds the fifth most passing touchdowns (41) and the most single-season touchdowns (30) in Tar Heel history.
On the ground, Hood is among UNC's best. In three seasons with North Carolina, he propelled himself to ninth all-time in rushing yards (2,580), including the second-best season (1,463) in UNC history. He’s also tied for third in single-season rushing touchdowns (17) and tied for sixth on career rushing touchdowns (29).
UNC loses its leader in career receptions (244) and career receiving yards (2,907) in Switzer. The shifty slot extraordinaire sits with departing teammates Hollins and Howard among the top ten in career receiving touchdowns.
Top this off with Switzer’s return abilities— his seven punt return touchdowns are an ACC record and just one shy of the NCAA's — and you’ve almost got a full-blown turnover for the Tar Heel offense. Almost. With Bentley Spain and R.J. Prince, UNC will at least have an experienced offensive line group to build behind.
“I like to think that the O-line is the backbone no matter what," Spain said. "I think that we have a challenge this year to kind of carry this team, but I’m really confident in our guys that are gonna be able to step up.”
Spain (13 starts) and Prince (12 starts) were the part of a line that allowed 20 sacks, which isn't ideal but isn't awful either. Their strong finish landed North Carolina among the top 30 teams in the country for least sacks allowed. Add in graduate transfers Cam Dillard of Florida and Khaliel Rodgers of USC, and the line looks to be a bright spot for the Tar Heels, regardless of who’s taking snaps.
With all the new faces on offense, it may be tough early on for the unit to find a rhythm, but the offensive line knows their efforts will play a vital part in the offensive status of the Tar Heels.
“If we aren’t doing well, the skill guys aren’t going to be able to do well,” Spain said.
It won’t be easy to form a cohesive unit in one offseason, but behind the staple of UNC’s front line, the Tar Heel offense should have ample time to figure it out.