College Football: UNC offensive line must come up big
CHAPEL HILL ó With a young quarterback and an experienced running back, James Hurst knows North Carolina’s offensive linemen will have a lot of say about how well the Tar Heels move the football this year.
“Obviously there’s some pressure with it, but that’s what we wanted coming in,” said Hurst, a sophomore tackle. “Now that there’s some attention, if you will, there’s more pressure and we’re going to try to live up to that and try to exceed everyone’s expectations for us.”
The Tar Heels have plenty to build around on the line with Hurst, guard Jonathan Cooper and center Cam Holland. Hurst started all but one game last year and earned freshman All-America honors from several outlets. Cooper, a junior, was a second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick who started every game in 2010 and has 22 career starts. Holland, a senior, is entering his third year as the starting center and has 20 career starts.
North Carolina’s starters on the preseason depth chart all weigh more than 310 pounds, with Hurst, junior guard Travis Bond (three starts last year) and junior tackle Brennan Williams (played in 10 games in ’10) each at 6 feet, 7 inches. And with seemingly solid depth, offensive line coach Sam Pittman said there’s potential for the unit to have a strong year.
Pittman said the linemen’s returning experience has allowed him to “take it a little bit further” than just teaching fundamentals in training camp. Instead, the players can get in more advanced work to prepare for all the changing looks they’ll see from defenses in the regular season.
“One of the things about experience is a lot of guys already know the playbook,” Holland said. “They know what to do and know their assignments. That allows you to go out there every day and focus on technique and honing your skills. On top of that, if you have a good idea of the base offense, it’s much easier to grasp the game plan as it changes from game to game.”
That unit will have to protect quarterback Bryn Renner, the sophomore likely to take over for four-year starter T.J. Yates despite having just two career pass attempts. It will also need to open running lanes for fifth-year tailback Ryan Houston, who redshirted last year and ran for 17 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009 ó mostly on short-yardage carries. But Renner said the line had more than held its own in early practices against a defensive line that includes NFL draft prospects Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss.
“In these first … practices, I’ve never seen the offensive line like we have just explode off the ball and create holes,” Renner said. “I can’t say enough about them. They’re doing a fantastic job and I think they’re only going to get better. I think my job is just to kind of stay out of the way this year: get the ball to (receiver) Dwight (Jones), hand off to Ryan, let the line take over and do my little role on the team.”
Still, the line will have to improve from last year in a few key areas. The Tar Heels didn’t run the ball consistently last year and ranked 11th in the ACC (104th nationally) by allowing 37 sacks. It’s why Pittman cautions against expecting too much just yet.
“We haven’t done anything yet on the field,” Pittman said. “We feel good about our unit as far as talent and experience go, but those particular five guys haven’t necessarily played totally together a lot. We’re just trying to make sure that we take care of each other, play as a unit, and that all five of us play hard and play well.”
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