Following a rash of injuries and defections during the first eight months of ’09, offensive line coach Sam Pittman entered last season with five walk-ons and three true freshmen in the three-deep. The Tar Heels had lost three offensive linemen (Mike Dykes, Zack Handerson, Morgan Randall) to career-ending injuries prior to training camp, the squad’s most athletic lineman (left tackle Carl Gaskins) had suffered a season-ending ACL tear during training camp and two others had left the team (Aaron Stahl, Kevin Bryant).
So it should have come as no surprise that the results were agonizing when left guard Jonathan Cooper and center Lowell Dyer battled injuries during the first half of the season. True freshmen Brennan Williams and Travis Bond were thrust into action before they were ready, and the FBS competition took full advantage, holding UNC’s rushing attack to 239 yards on 116 carries in the first four games, while also sacking Yates nine times.
But that production improved dramatically as Dyer and Cooper returned to full health and the young players earned their stripes. The Tar Heels rolled up 238 rushing yards at a 5.8-yards-per-carry clip against Florida State before following up that performance with a 181-yard rushing display at Virginia Tech one week later.
Fast forward 10 months and the outlook along the offensive line has taken a drastic turn for the better.
Dyer and three-year starting left tackle Kyle Jolly have departed Chapel Hill, but red-shirt sophomore Jonathan Cooper has assumed the center responsibilities and Gaskins is expected to slide into the role of Yates’ blind side guardian.
Yates told reporters during the ACC Kickoff on Sunday that Cooper has spent this offseason focusing on his new position and becoming the leader of the offensive line.
“He’s not really one of the big linemen, but he’s a fit guy,” Yates said. “He’s fast and he’s very talkative. He’s the guy that keeps that offensive line moving, because he’s talking so much out there. He’s an extremely high-energy guy. That’s something you need to keep everything going, especially on the offensive line.”
Red-shirt senior Alan Pelc and Bond return to anchor the guard positions, while red-shirt senior Mike Ingersoll and Williams are expected to battle for the right tackle spot. But the starting unit only provides a glimpse into the optimism that surrounds this group heading into the ’10 campaign.
Red-shirt junior Cam Holland and red-shirt senior Greg Elleby provide plenty of experience off the bench, and a continued move towards a unified front has strengthened bonds along the offensive line.
“Not only the talent – obviously we’re getting faster, stronger, bigger guys in here – but just the overall sense that the offensive line is more of a unit now,” Yates replied when asked how the offensive line has improved since he arrived in Chapel Hill. “Now they watch film together, they eat together, they hang out together – they’re one big group. They know that we’re going to be switching guys around and there’s a lot of competition going on between the offensive linemen. They know that and they embrace it and really enjoy the competition.”
Early enrollee James Hurst highlights the three-man ’10 recruiting class, thanks to recognition as Scout.com’s third-rated offensive tackle nationally last year. Despite that ranking, or possibly because of it, All-American candidate Robert Quinn made a point to single Hurst out during spring practice.
“Before our first one-on-one, a couple of guys said, ‘You’ve got to initiate him and welcome him to college’,” said Quinn, whose stated goals for this season are 27 sacks and the Heisman trophy. “So I guess I welcomed him into college…
“I set him up to start a speed rush around the corner and then turned right into him and gave him a little bull rush just to let him know that he’s in college now, no more high school. But it was all fun and games.”
Yates is convinced that Hurst is ready to play a significant role this fall for the Tar Heels.
“If you’re coming in just a few days removed from high school and you’re going against [Quinn] in spring practice and holding your own, I’m pretty sure you’re ready to play,” Yates said. “James is a smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. He obviously came from a great program with great coaches because the transition that he made from high school to college football… Everybody was really blown away by it.”
Things are improving along the offensive front and there doesn’t appear to be any setbacks in the near future as North Carolina currently boasts the nation’s second-best OL recruiting class in ’11, highlighted by five-star tackle Kiaro Holts and four-star guard Landon Turner.