The New Guard

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While there will undoubtedly be transitional challenges in replacing first-round NFL draft pick Jonathan Cooper at left guard this fall, red-shirt freshman Caleb Peterson has secured the job and progressed solidly through the offseason and training camp.

Talk to offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic about finding consistency and developing chemistry up front and he's quick to highlight the need for resolution at right tackle while complimenting the other four positions. That's understandable for veterans Russell Bodine and James Hurst at center and left tackle, respectively, as well as relative newcomer Landon Turner (four career starts) at right guard.

But the ease at which Kapilovic glides over Peterson at left guard – simply noting the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder has had a "good camp" – speaks volumes about the Auburn, Ala. native.

"Don't get me wrong – it's not perfect, but he is improving daily and weekly, which is what we need," Kapilovic said recently. "So yes, I feel comfortable with him right now at left guard."

Peterson credits his true freshman opportunity to practice and learn behind Cooper, as well as practicing with the first unit during spring ball, as laying the groundwork for his evolution this offseason and preventing any type of shock from setting in during camp.

The strength and conditioning aspect of adapting to the college game wasn't the challenge to Peterson that it is to so many rookie linemen. The obstacle has come in the form of UNC head coach Larry Fedora's spread playbook.

"I've actually lost weight since I got here, but the big thing is that I've gained intelligence," Peterson said. "Coming from high school, everything was dumbed down. It's a watered-down version of college offenses and so you get here and you have to start getting used to the speed of things and the complexity. That's something, with last year and this spring, I've really had the opportunity to grow in."

With the days before the season opener whittling away, Peterson's maturity level is evident as he talks about recognizing the need to learn on the fly while also not rushing the process.

"The thing that's tripped me up the most is breaking down all of the things that I need to think about pre-snap with the speed of our offense," Peterson said. "That's just something that comes with time. It gets more and more comfortable every day, so it's just one of those things you have to roll with."

Of course, it's beneficial to a pair of talents like Bodine and Hurst flanking him on either side.

"These are two guys that both have NFL potential," Peterson said. "They know what they're doing; they've been doing it for a while. It's really helpful as a freshman just now starting to have two guys that have been there to put their hands on my back and say, ‘Come on, come this way,' and help bring me along."

As for the task of replacing Cooper, Peterson has received a steady diet of coaches and teammates reiterating that it's not his job to replace the Arizona Cardinals' No. 7 overall pick – it's to play left guard for North Carolina.

"Naturally, there's pressure," Peterson said. "It comes with the position when you've got a guy who's arguably the best player to come through UNC. But it's just about me being as good as I can be. I'm Caleb Peterson. I'm not Jonathan Cooper."

Peterson indicated that it took until this summer for him to feel comfortable in his guard responsibilities. In 10 days, he will make his first career start at No. 7 South Carolina. Recommended Stories

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