At a glance, the outlook for the 2018 North Carolina offensive line play appears bleak.
After all, the group didn’t exactly set college football on fire in 2017. North Carolina gave up 2.5 sacks and 6.58 tackles for loss per game last year, ranking 96th and 99th in the FBS, respectively. Throw in the departures of starters Cam Dillard, Khaliel Rodgers, R.J. Prince and Bentley Spain, and there seems to be very little reason for hope.
Yet a closer look reveals that the optimism surrounding the team heading into the season opener at California extends to the offensive line. Just ask junior left guard Nick Polino.
“We’ve been a completely different team just from spring ball through the summer all the way up to training camp,” he said during media availability last Thursday. “It’s been a completely different feel around here.”
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic believes the difference in the unit comes down to cohesion. The group has four established starters and two talented young players battling for the final spot at right guard. Throughout spring training, summer practice and fall camp, that core group has had a chance to practice side-by-side and build chemistry.
“This year I think we have really four guys, the tackles, left guard and center have been pretty solid, been there every day,” Kapilovic said. “There’s no question communication is better. Again, the more they’re together the better the chemistry is.”
That sort of cohesion among the offensive line was sorely lacking in 2017. Several key injuries and departures left the Tar Heels with a cobbled-together unit that didn’t see many practice reps and struggled with a lack of continuity.
First Jared Cohen, a contender for a starting spot on the offensive line, left the program for personal reasons before the start of the regular season. Then Tommy Hatton sustained his fourth concussion before the season opener against Cal. The concussions led to Hatton’s eventual retirement from the sport.
Finally, William Sweet, who started the first three games of the season as an offensive tackle, went down. Sweet’s knee injury against Old Dominion ended his 2017 campaign, and proved that the offensive line was not immune to the injury bug that depleted the whole roster.
But now, Sweet is back from injury and will be battling in the trenches alongside other talented players. According to Kapilovic, Sweet has slowly but surely knocked off the rust that inevitably accumulates after a year of sitting on the sideline.
Then, of course, there is junior Charlie Heck, who has secured the other starting tackle position. He is the rock of the unit. Quarterback Nathan Elliott offered a prediction that illuminates his level of confidence in the Kansas City native.
“I mean, Charlie Heck, I think he’ll be a first rounder,” Elliott said.
Kapilovic will look to Heck and Sweet to provide leadership for the rest of the line. That includes Polino, who is slotted for the left guard spot and started two games last year, and sophomore center Jay-Jay McCargo, who has only one career start under his belt.
The biggest question for the offensive line, however, is at right guard. First-year William Barnes and redshirt first-year Billy Ross are battling for the starting spot. While Ross has the advantage of a year's experience within the program, Barnes was the top recruit in North Carolina’s incoming class, ranked by 247Sports as the fifth-best offensive tackle in the nation. Barnes’ talent has been evident, but he is still adjusting to the learning curve of collegiate football.
“He’s going to be able to play," Kapilovic said when asked about Barnes. "There’s no doubt. There’s still freshman moments like you expect, but physically he can do it, there’s no question.”
For UNC to avoid another disappointing season, it will need its offensive line play to improve greatly. With a relatively unseasoned quarterback in Elliott manning the helm, the line will need to give him all the protection it can for him to thrive. Just as importantly, it will need to improve upon an underwhelming 4.1 rushing yards per carry and effectively block for a promising stable of running backs.
If the offensive line can harness its natural talent and chemistry to overcome its lack of experience, it just might be up to the task.