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The Daily Tar Heel

Football: Filling holes in training camp

North Carolina opened training camp Aug. 6. DTH/Codey Johnston
North Carolina opened training camp Aug. 6. DTH/Codey Johnston

Carl Gaskins. Kevin Bryant. Aaron Stahl.

Not exactly the trio of offensive players that fans and coaches of the North Carolina football team were worried about replacing this training camp.

And while these three certainly don’t have the star power of departed wide receivers and NFL draftees Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster, their absence this season leaves the Tar Heels’ offensive line decidedly thin. That’s a problem at a position crucial to protecting quarterback T.J. Yates and opening up holes for UNC’s running backs.

“We’re going to have to develop some depth,” head coach Butch Davis said. “We’re playing some true freshman on the offensive line in the second and third group, getting challenged.

“To be honest with you, we’ve given them more reps than we normally would have given players a year ago. In a typical period drill where they might get six, sometimes they’re getting seven and sometimes they’re getting eight.”

The dominos began to fall when Stahl choose to graduate and leave the program rather than using his final year of eligibility. Then Bryant opted not to return for his sophomore year after a summer in which he was charged with misdemeanor assault. Gaskins tore his ACL in his left knee during training camp to finish the battering of UNC’s depth chart.

While Stahl was the only player penciled in for a starting position, Bryant and Gaskins were second team players on a unit that already lost two starters from 2008 to graduation: right tackle Garrett Reynolds and right guard Calvin Darity.

But for all the missing faces, at least one offensive lineman, Greg Elleby, said the unit is not fazed going into the season.

Elleby, who converted to offense after playing defensive end for UNC last season, said the entire offensive line, particularly the freshmen who will be counted on to provide insurance behind UNC’s starters, has come “a long, long way” from the start of camp.

“We don’t worry about depth at all,” Elleby said. “We just play with the guys that are here because we can’t win with somebody that isn’t here.”

As for replacing that “other” trio of Nicks, Tate and Foster, the depth chart remains flexible. No receiver has risen head and shoulders above the others during training camp, but Davis said that is by design.

“Receivers by nature during training camp, they run their legs off,” he said. “We can almost not have enough receivers for training camp because the nature of how much they to run in the course of a practice — it’s literally measurable in miles.”

Junior Greg Little returns this season as the most experienced player of the group and probably will emerge from camp as the No. 1 receiver. As quarterback Yates said, he’s the receiver he’s been most comfortable with on the field.

But beyond Little, the position remains an unknown quantity. Sophomore Dwight Jones was listed as the other starter after spring practice, but six to seven players are still in the mix.

Freshman Jheranie Boyd has stood out in drills with impressive speed, but Davis said the competition might stretch into the season, with results on the field having the final say.

“Those first three or four games is going to give them something we can’t give them. It doesn’t matter how much we challenge them,” Davis said. “It won’t be the same as the speed, the adrenaline rush, all the excitement playing in front of 65,000 people.

“That’s when we’ll start to find out if they’re truly ready to play.”

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