Line Play Remains a Concern

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 23 North Carolina will take the Kenan Stadium field on Saturday with the most preseason hype surrounding the program since 2010. Whether the Tar Heels meet those expectations or not, however, will be largely dependent on their line play.

“I said going into this, I’m concerned with our depth on both fronts, the offensive and defensive lines,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters on Monday.

Fedora confirmed that redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon will start at defensive end and redshirt sophomore John Ferranto will start at left tackle against Liberty this weekend. Those announcements ensure that the majority of UNC’s trench positions will be manned by underclassmen.

UNC’s offensive and defensive lines boast a total of 69 combined starts, 64 of which occurred last fall. Junior right guard Landon Turner is the only player in the two-deep of either line to start a game prior to 2013.

“We’ve got some depth on the offensive line, but all of it is inexperienced,” Fedora said. “A lot of them, the only experience they’ve got is what they got in spring ball or what they got in fall camp. So, that concerns me, especially at that position. When you’re that young at that position, it’s a difficult thing, because that’s probably the toughest position to play when you’re that young and inexperienced. Same thing with the defensive line because of some attrition over there. It’s a concern for me right now.”

Turner will be joined by four sophomores on the offensive line in right tackle Jon Heck, center Lucas Crowley, left guard Caleb Peterson and Ferranto. The second unit is comprised of two redshirt freshmen (guard Brad Henson and tackle R.J. Prince), two true freshmen (guard Jared Cohen and tackle Bentley Spain) and junior guard Will Dancy.

That amount of youth along the offensive line has detractors questioning whether or not OL coach Chris Kapilovic’s unit will allow for the immense talent at the skill positions to reach its full potential.

“All of that weak link stuff has just been motivation for us,” Turner said. “Going through camp, our manta was ‘we’re not going to be the weak link.’ We’ve got to prove everyone wrong. I’m just ready to do that at this point.”

While the youth aspect is not as extreme on the defensive side of the ball, there are still unknowns in the starting lineup.

Drennon will join fellow redshirt freshman Nazair Jones (3-technique) and senior Norkeithus Otis (bandit) on the defensive line. The fourth and final spot – nose tackle – will be filled by either junior Justin Thomason or senior Ethan Farmer.

Farmer’s eligibility remains unclear five days before the opener. If Farmer - the only returning tackle or end with a career start - is ruled ineligible for the season, he would be the third nose tackle that UNC has lost since the end of the July. Senior Shawn Underwood and redshirt freshman Greg Webb were dismissed due to academics.

Turner labeled Farmer as the strongest guy on the team “by far” and described him as the anchor of the defensive line.

“It sucks to block him, so we definitely need to get him back,” Turner said.

UNC needed defensive linemen to elevate their play during training camp to fill the gaps created by attrition and the freshman duo of Jones and Drennon have apparently met the challenge. Turner indicated that the pair proved to be the toughest competition for him during preseason camp.

“Nazair has put on some weight, so he’s been able to anchor more,” Turner said. “That was his biggest problem last year, as well as being young, he just wasn’t as large. So now it takes more to move him out of the way, but he still has that speed because he was a speed guy to begin with, so that’s a pretty dangerous combination. And Dajaun has really become more confident in himself and he’s just a big, imposing guy. He’s really fast, but he’s also really strong.”

As good as Drennon and Jones may potentially be now and possibly become later in their careers, it may be unfair to place lofty expectations on the shoulders of 19-year-old linemen. Only one of the 12 defensive linemen named to the three All-ACC teams in 2013 was an underclassman.

For UNC to legitimately challenge for the ACC’s Coastal Division crown, however, both lines will have to play older than their years and up to their projected talent level.



 

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