Possibly the most shocking statistic to emerge from college football’s national landscape was North Carolina’s 339 rushing yards over Virginia Tech. Factor in the Hokies’ lone sack of Bryn Renner and it becomes clear how UNC scored the most points against Virginia Tech (48) since LSU posted the same number in 2007.
And while senior offensive guard Jonathan Cooper agreed with the notion that Saturday’s performance was a statement game of sorts, it’s not as though UNC’s offensive line showcased anything other than what they’ve been doing all season long – controlling the line of scrimmage.
The Tar Heels rank 32nd nationally in rushing offense (200.3 ypg), although the more impressive stat is UNC’s 5.18 yards-per-rush average. That’s two-hundredths off the school record (5.2), which was set back in 1946.
Not good enough? How about this statistic – UNC’s offensive line has allowed just four sacks in six games, good for 11th nationally (0.67).
“I know I’ve got all day back there,” Renner said. “For a quarterback, that’s all you can ask. You see guys on TV every week escaping from the pocket when they don’t really want to. I’ve got a ton of confidence in the offensive line.”
It helps that UNC’s offensive line is loaded with experience. The starting five of junior left tackle James Hurst, Cooper, sophomore center Russell Bodine, senior right guard Travis Bond and senior right tackle Brennan Williams has combined for 122 career starts.
“They’ve really done a great job,” Renner said. “The offensive line and [offensive line] Coach Kapilovic have really come together and they’re a close unit. Those guys have been playing together for awhile…
“We all came in together. We all know each other and we really work together as far as getting the protections down. We take pride in not allowing any sacks between both of us and the running backs.”
Cooper offered his explanation for the line’s improved play following the win on Saturday.
“I feel like it’s a combination of things,” Cooper said. “It’s a new system where people can’t just bring everybody because we have them spread out. It’s Bryn being healthy and understanding the protections. And the offensive line – I feel like we’ve done a better job this year. Put all of those together and I feel like it’s turned out as a better year for us as an offensive line.”
On Monday, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams labeled his trench counterparts as “the best offensive line in the country.”
“With some offensive linemen, you may go and get a sack because they bust an assignment, but it’s not like that with our guys,” Williams said. “We’ve got five guys that are going to keep Bryn Renner clean and get Gio [Bernard] down the field.”
Despite new Virginia Tech blitzes that UNC hadn’t seen on film prior to Saturday, Renner was only sacked once and officially hurried twice by Bud Foster’s defense.
North Carolina head coach Fedora told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday that his offensive line likely graded out better overall against the Hokies than it had in the previous five games.
“We had fewer mistakes up front and guys really gave great effort,” Fedora said. “And the tempo – our guys are now seeing the light come on. Now it’s not the offensive linemen going, ‘Golly, in practice we just get so many reps and I’m tired.’ It’s not that anymore. Now it’s ‘I understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we’re going fast each day.’”
As strong as the offensive line play has been thus far, there are no illusions that this is a finished product.
“We’ve also got to build more consistency,” Cooper said. “We’ve made some great plays and there were times where we were consistently driving the ball, but just throughout the game, from beginning to end, we want to be more consistent. Pound it early, pound it often.”
Injuries to Bodine and Hurst have also allowed Kapilovic to build needed depth up front. Red-shirt freshman Kiaro Holts started in Hurst’s spot against Idaho and red-shirt freshman guard Landon Turner played significant snaps against the Hokies. Along with backup center Peyton Jenest, UNC is gradually putting together a solid eight-man rotation to navigate the second half of the season.