Heading into the offseason, improving consistency and depth across the offensive line was an emphasis for head coach Mack Brown and the North Carolina football team.
The unit struggled to protect quarterback Sam Howell at times last season, allowing 49 sacks — more than any other ACC team.
But after months of preparation under Jack Bicknell Jr. — the new offensive line coach after Stacy Searels left for Georgia — the group's improvement was on full display against a talented UNC defensive line in the team's #TyleeStrong spring game on Saturday.
The Tar Heels' physicality inside opened up the offense for the quarterbacks, who threw for 250 yards on 22 completions.
“Coach Bicknell has done a great job,” redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye said. “We’ve changed some things up front. Throughout practice and the spring game, you can see we’ve got some more depth in the pocket and just less problems with communication.”
After bringing back all five starters on the line in 2021 and failing to live up to lofty expectations, a new coaching voice and a renewed sense of aggression and urgency have helped the Tar Heels mitigate the loss of three starters heading into 2022.
Throughout the game, the North Carolina offensive linemen only allowed four sacks, two of which came on back-to-back plays from junior defensive end Desmond Evans.
Junior defensive lineman Myles Murphy — who many view as a prime candidate for a big 2022 season — has seen the changes firsthand. As someone who competes against the improved unit each practice, he said he's been impressed with the camaraderie the players have with their new coach.
“Coach (Bicknell), he’s a nice person,” Murphy said. “I can tell they bond with him a lot and they trust him, so when he calls something, they have passion with it.”
In addition to protecting the quarterback and opening up holes for the running game, the Tar Heels also showed more discipline up front. After a 2021 season that saw the team average 13 penalties per game, the offensive line didn't draw a single flag on Saturday, which can be rare for an early-season exhibition.
“Tom Luginbill with the ACC Network said, ‘I don't think I’ve ever seen this few penalties in a spring game,' and I’m really pleased with that,” Brown said. “We have ACC officials at every practice, and we’ve always acknowledged it, but now we’re fixing it better.”
Following Howell's departure to the NFL, improved communication and production from the offensive line should put less pressure on the team's new starting quarterback, whoever that may be. Both Maye and sophomore Jacolby Criswell showed flashes of stellar play on Saturday, but they'll only go as far as the offensive line takes them this season.
Coming off a season when the Tar Heels fell from a preseason top-10 team to a 6-7 final record, North Carolina needed some players on both sides of the ball to step up and thrive in a new role.
Despite the moving pieces, the offensive line has taken on the challenge early.
The disappointment of last season still lingers throughout the locker room, but the group seems poised to take a step forward and block out the outside noise.
“A lot of people are probably doubting our team,” junior wide receiver Josh Downs said. “So we’ve got a chip on our shoulder, and we’re going to show everybody what’s up.”
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.