One of the first questions Larry Fedora fielded at UNC’s media day on Saturday centered on how quickly he thought it would take for his offensive line to come together.
After quickly counting up the number of days before the season opener at South Carolina – 26, to be exact – the second-year UNC head coach replied, “Ready or not, it has to gel.”
The positives, of course, are that offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic returns three players with significant playing experience – left tackle James Hurst (36 career starts), center Russell Bodine (14 starts) and right guard Landon Turner (4 starts).
“We’re really breaking in the right tackle and left guard spots,” Fedora said.
Kapilovic will attempt to accelerate the gelling process by minimizing movement between positions. While that approach should cut the learning curve in the short term, it could pose long-term problems if injuries come into play as it hurts building depth through versatility.
In 2012, right guard Travis Bond split time between guard and tackle during training camp. That decision paid off when right tackle Brennan Williams suffered a season-ending injury and Bond was able to move out to tackle for the final four games of the season.
Red-shirt freshman Caleb Peterson (6-5, 300 lbs) has moved into All-America Jonathan Cooper’s role at left guard, while sophomore Kiaro Holts (6-4, 295 lbs) and red-shirt freshman John Ferranto (6-5, 290 lbs) are battling for the right tackle job.
Fedora told reporters that his offensive line is “significantly better” than it was in the spring.
“Those guys have really picked up the offense and they know they’re going to have to contribute for us to be a good team,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.
It helps that the most critical positions along the offensive line – center and left tackle – have veterans filling those roles with an ability to serve as on-the-field coaches for the inexperienced additions.
“I think the knowledge that James Hurst and Russell [Bodine] bring is huge,” Renner said. “They’re making all of the calls. They’re making those guys feel comfortable because they have game reps and have played in the offense and won games for us…
“If you were starting with five new guys, I think it would be tough, but we’re starting with three guys who have experience.”
Hurst has long been one of the younger guys along the offensive line, but with the departure of mainstays like Cooper, Williams and Bond, his role has evolved this offseason.
“You’ve really got to take more of a vocal leadership,” Hurst said. “There’s got to be a point in time where you realize that I’m a leader now and people are looking up to me and looking to me when times are tough or maybe even when times are good. I think once you realize that, it’s a little more pressure but it’s welcome because it’s a good feeling to have those guys trust you.”
Hurst and Bodine were unsure of how the lineup would play out during offseason workouts, so they made a point to reach out to every lineman on the roster to start the chemistry building process in preparation for training camp.
Hurst was sidelined during the spring with an undisclosed injury, but made the most of his time by learning his position group’s tendencies and helping correct mistakes. Now that he’s back to full health, Hurst is focused on building the necessary chemistry with Peterson on the left side of the line.
Bodine returns as the anchor of the line.
“Russell sets the tempo as far as practice,” Renner said. “He does a phenomenal job of keeping those guys focused on the line and making all of the calls. Credit James and him for going as fast as we can go, because they make all of the calls really quick and they make my job easy.”
There’s plenty of work to be done upfront and only 21 more practice opportunities left in training camp. The growth of the offensive line during that stretch will determine how effective UNC’s up-tempo offense will be early in the season.