Entering the 2013 season, UNC and defending national champion Alabama were the only teams tasked with replacing three drafted offensive linemen and their starting tailback.
Without Jonathan Cooper, Brennan Williams, Travis Bond and Gio Bernard on the roster, UNC's ground game has dropped from 33rd nationally (193.8 ypg) to 112th (100.3 ypg). Alabama – which lost running back Eddie Lacy and offensive linemen Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker to the draft – has seen its production cut from 227.5 rushing yards per game (16th) in 2012 to 162.5 rushing yards per game (70th) this season.
Those stats are quickly improving for the Crimson Tide, which is understandable considering their talent cupboard resembles something more like a butler's pantry. Alabama rushed for 254 yards on 40 carries in Saturday's 25-0 win over Ole Miss.
UNC, on the other hand, rushed for a season-low 67 yards on 32 attempts in its loss to East Carolina on Saturday. The Tar Heels have rushed for more than 101 yards just once this season, grinding out 134 yards against Middle Tennessee.
Head coach Larry Fedora told reporters on Wednesday that the ground game woes are a combination of the offensive line and running back units.
"I don't think that we've had any real consistency at all," Fedora said. "Some of that has been game situations that, either we got out of our game plan or had to adjust our game plan, and some of it is continuity up front, some of it is backs."
On Monday, Fedora reiterated his preseason concerns about the offensive line, but stressed that his expectations were the same and that he still expects the offense to be better than last season's unit before 2013 concludes.
"I'm going to expect us to reach up there and be much better than we are right now," Fedora said.
Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said the offensive problems are "across the board," but acknowledged the challenges up front in running the ball.
"It is a contributing factor to the pains that we're going to have – even though nobody really wants to hear the truth – we're going to have all year until those guys mature," Anderson said. "We're still trying to mature a running back and get one healthy and find one that's going to be the guy on a down-to-down basis. That hasn't really emerged yet."
Romar Morris (169 yards, 3 TD) led UNC in rushing yards entering Saturday's loss, but sat out the game due to an undisclosed injury. A.J. Blue (176 yards on 43 carries in ‘13) took the bulk of the snaps on Saturday.
Senior offensive tackle James Hurst offered his opinion on the rebuilding process ahead of the offensive line following the game.
"Last year it was locked down every play, making holes for the running backs," Hurst said. "There's just a difference. It's obvious when you lose that much talent. It's rare that you have that much talent on one offensive line. So people are seeing that and obviously, it's our job to run the ball and do those same things. We've got to understand our weaknesses and we've got to attack those weaknesses in practice if we want to get any better."
Despite the loss of NFL-level talent, Blue stressed the value of hard work and effort and its ability to mask talent deficiencies.
"Talent doesn't always win the game," Blue said. "Coop, Bond, those guys had a lot of talent, but the thing was they also worked and had a lot of energy as well. I think our guys, we've just got to keep that energy, we've got to keep that passion and we've got to keep that focus because 60 minutes is a long time."
It won't get any easier for the Tar Heels this weekend. Virginia Tech is allowing 103.0 rushing yards per game – good for 19th nationally – and that includes a matchup with Georgia Tech's run-heavy offense.