UNC set roughly three dozen offensive school records in 2012. Bernard played a significant role in those achievements, as did returning quarterback Bryn Renner. The common bond for those two playmakers, however, was an offensive line heavy in size and experience.
Four critical cogs up front have since graduated, with three expected to be selected in April’s NFL Draft. Three starters – left guard Jonathan Cooper, right guard Travis Bond and right tackle Brennan Williams – combined for 98 career starts. Reserve Peyton Jenest was versatile in playing both center and guard in 29 career appearances.
What remains is a pair of linemen with double-digit career starts in left tackle James Hurst (36) and center Russell Bodine (14) and two others with minimal starting experience – right guard Landon Turner (4) and left tackle Kiaro Holts (1).
“Any time you lose three guys – all of them are going to get a chance to play in the NFL – those are big shoes to fill,” Bodine said this week. “Only a couple of the guys have played before, so there are big holes to fill and we’ve got to work to get better as a unit.”
On Wednesday, UNC’s two-deep included six underclassmen. While Hurst was sporting an orange jersey (limited participation), Holts slid into his role at left tackle alongside red-shirt freshman Caleb Peterson at left tackle, Bodine, Turner at right guard and fourth-year junior Nick Appel at right tackle.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora wasn’t able to offer much insight into how the new-look offensive line was shaping up.
“Well, it’s still too early to tell,” Fedora told reporters following UNC’s fourth spring practice. “We’ve still got a long way to go at the guard position on the left side and that right tackle. James Hurst isn’t going through with it right now.
“It’s frustrating in a way but it’s also exciting because you’ve got new guys who are getting a lot of reps right now. Whether they make a mistake or not is not important. It’s that they’re learning and they’re getting better.”
The situation appears to be most dire at left guard. The official two-deep in 2012 listed Cooper and Jenest as the only options clogging the gap between Bodine and Hurst on the left side.
Peterson, checking in at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, is learning on the fly. Bodine described the Auburn, Ala. native as a high energy, physical lineman.
“Caleb Peterson, he’s gotten a lot better, but he’s still got a long way to go,” Hurst said. “He’s got to work on his feet and he knows that. But he accepts the challenge, so I’m looking forward to playing next to him and trying to help him in any way that I can.”
Trust is the most essential ingredient in overcoming the attrition and putting a solid product on the field this fall, according to Hurst.
“We’re a ways out, but building that relationship, building that trust is huge,” the Plainfield, Ind. senior said. “Just to know that I’m playing for the guy next to me, he’s playing for me. Everyone’s playing as one unit. We know that and we’ve adopted that approach, but until you really get some reps in there together, it’s a little different.”
It’s a work in progress. After three days of struggles and mental errors, Hurst said, the offensive line showed signs of improvement with a solid practice on Wednesday.
With roughly 40 more practice opportunities between now and the season opener at South Carolina on Aug. 29, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic will have an adequate amount of time to start patching the glaring holes up front.