In 2012, the Tar Heels ranked ninth nationally in sacks allowed (.92) and 33rd in rushing offense (193.8 ypg). Midway through the 2013 season, UNC has already allowed two more sacks (13) than it did in all of 2012 while its rushing yardage has been nearly cut in half (100.8 ypg, 114th).
A drop in production was expected following the graduation of four offensive linemen, including three starters that were selected in April’s NFL Draft, as well as the early departure of running back Gio Bernard. Few, if any, anticipated the magnitude of the decline, however, or the slow development along the offensive line.
There has been growth, to be sure, but a stout early-season schedule required a sharp learning curve with prompt results that never materialized.
“Well, we’re not where we want to be,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic told InsideCarolina.com earlier this week. “They’re working hard and there is some progress.”
The line’s lone veterans – left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine – have worked since the spring to build chemistry within their position group, which currently starts two red-shirt freshmen – right tackle Jon Heck and left guard Caleb Peterson – and sophomore right guard Landon Turner.
“I think we’ve grown up for the most part,” Hurst said. “You can see a lot of maturity coming out in the younger guys. They understand the game more, which is expected. If you haven’t played, you have no idea what’s going to happen out there.”
Kapilovic praised his line’s performance at Virginia Tech, but indicated their showing against Miami last Thursday night was “kind of up and down.”
While UNC’s delay of game on 3rd-and-inches late in the fourth quarter has received the bulk of the media attention, Heck was called for a false start on the ensuing play before being beat off the edge by linebacker Tyriq McCord on 3rd-and-10, which resulted in a sack and punt.
“I thought protection-wise we did a nice job,” Kapilovic said of the Miami loss. “The right tackle made a bonehead mistake on that last third down, but they did a decent job. Run game-wise, we were playing with some tempo and they were having a hard time getting lined up. I really felt like our inexperience didn’t handle that well at times, but there is some progress.”
Sophomore Kiaro Holts and junior Nick Appel have also played snaps at right tackle, although Heck seems to have locked down the position.
“Heck has improved,” Kapilovic said. “He’s done better than those guys and that’s why he’s the starter. But being the freshman that he is, he’ll do some things that are not good enough for what we need. He’s got to become consistent.
“He’s got to just do his job and not get overwhelmed by the situation. And when he does that, he does fine. There are times that he overthinks it or gets caught up in the environment and maybe blows a fuse and those are the things we’re trying to get rid of.”
Hurst has been complimentary of Peterson’s play at left guard dating back to training camp, but the senior tackle echoed his position coach’s comments about the need for consistency on the right side of the line.
“They’ll go in there sometimes and do a great job and you see that,” Hurst said. “We have good scoring drives that look real easy and it seems like there are no issues up front. But then maybe a couple of plays later, there will be kind of a unforgiveable mistake - maybe it’s a simple thing, maybe it’s not - but something that just interrupts the flow that we have going.”
Injuries have crept in and added more obstacles into the mix. Bodine, for example, has been nicked up in each of the past three games.
Penalties have also been critical in killing momentum. UNC has had touchdowns wiped off the scoreboard twice this season due a penalty by an offensive lineman. Against Miami, running back T.J. Logan carved his way inside the 5-yard line in the third quarter before a chop block forced UNC to settle for a field goal.
Kapilovic said that there have been games this season with no penalties up front and then others with four of five flags, ranging from false starts to illegal blocks to holds.
“Usually the reason you get a holding penalty is because either your technique is poor or you’re not moving your feet and you get beat,” Kapilovic said. “The thing that we always stress is when you’re losing a block, you cut because that prevents holding. And sometimes when you’re not as good of an athlete as some, that’s hard to do.”
Communication and consistency remain the points of emphasis as UNC enters the second half of its schedule.
“It’s tough,” Hurst said of the slow start. “It’s a lot of adversity and obviously it’s not a situation right now that we wanted to be in. But, I think, every day it gives you more of a challenge because you obviously can’t be content. If you’re 6-0, maybe you can let off the gas a little bit, but in our situation, we’re 1-5.
“We’ve got everything left on the table. We’ve got to go out and get it done.”