UNC's inexperienced O-line must come together in a hurry

UNC returns talent all over the place at the skill positions. But offensive line remains a question mark. Can this unit get better quickly enough for the Tar Heels to contend for the Coastal Division crown?

The 2014 Tar Heels must carry the burden of a No. 23 national ranking into this season, despite losing two major pieces from last year's offensive line.

Liz Condo / USA TODAY Sports

There's always a reaction to the preseason polls, regardless of how meaningless they ultimately are. But when the Associated Press poll came out earlier this week, there were plenty of raised eyebrows -- locally and nationally -- with North Carolina's No. 23 slot.

Outsiders see the way North Carolina ended last season, winning six of its final seven games. Plus, the Tar Heels have many skill-position assets returning to a high-powered offense.

What's not to like about that?

UNC is looking good at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but there are plenty of issues where it matters most -- in the trenches, along the offensive line.

The Tar Heels' O-line had an up-and-down campaign last season, struggling early on and then getting sharper as the schedule eased up.

Now, this year's group will be down two O-linemen -- left tackle James Hurst (49 career starts) and center Russell Bodine.

What's left, then, are question marks. Potential, in places. But question marks and inexperience.

There are no seniors on the two-deep depth chart. Junior right guard Landon Turner is the best returning lineman, while sophomore Caleb Peterson (left guard) and Lucas Crowley (center) are relatively known commodities.

The other two starters, however, will be green.

Crowley is familiar with being thrust into the action early. He saw a lot of action last season in UNC's final six games, as injuries forced Bodine to one of the guard spots and shifted Crowley to center.

His first start, terrifyingly enough, came against Pittsburgh and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, tackle Aaron Donald.

"Going into it, I was a little bit nervous but I think (my teammates) helped calm me down and make me realize, 'You've got to calm down if you're going to do what you need to do,'" Crowley said.

He grinned before saying, "I think I did all right."

Donald will get his sacks and quarterback pressures, of course; but the fact the freshman Crowley competed against one of the best defenders in the country and didn't get his quarterback hurt was a great sign.

It's all uphill from there for the O-lineman, and head coach Larry Fedora has praised Crowley's continuous improvement throughout the spring and fall. 

In a lot of ways, he's still a very young player, as well.

As the center, Crowley has to know every single call -- and quickly -- diagnosing what he sees from opposing defenses in seconds, getting eammates lined up. All while showing great technique, too.

"You're the quarterback of that offensive line. You have to be able to make every single call. You've got to be able to understand the tempo, the way we're trying to do things, and then on top of it you've got to get the ball back to the quarterback in the perfect position," Fedora said.

"So it's just the comfort level of doing it over and over I think that's finally gotten to so now he can start excelling as a player."

Even in practice, he's found himself reluctant to correct an upperclassman -- even though he's one too.

"I'm a young guy, so I've been working on kind of building it up with the younger guys and helping them where I can to show that I'm a leader and to show that I can help out. I've been working on learning all the plays, knowing everything to do, that way I can help each position out, not just my position," Crowley said.

"I think I'm getting a good grasp on it. Obviously, still sometimes I'm like 'okay, that kid's been here for five years, I can't really --' but then I remind myself, we're all one team, everybody's got to be a leader on the team so when somebody needs you, you've got to help them out."

Crowley is doing his best to bring the younger players along, as is offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic.

But both of them said that there's nothing they can do to make the process faster in terms of breaking in the younger players. Crowley said he and Turner have led the charge in getting the guys together in the off-season to watch film and work out together, and that has helped. The extra two hours a week the NCAA has allotted for teams to meet with their players in the off-season did, too.

"We're working as hard as we can, just like we always do. This summer, they did a great job. Being able to meet with them two hours a week this summer was huge," Kapilovic said. "We're spending every minute we have of just repping them. Hopefully, it'll be sooner than later."

Whenever UNC has scrimmaged, they're trying to get the younger linemen as many reps as they can to simulate anything that could possibly happen in a game. He called those "learned reps", something the linemen can learn from in a way that they can't in plain old practice.

Kapilovic has been pleased with what he's seen at times in scrimmages, and discouraged at other times.

That's because he's seeing largely different results from play to play, and what he wants -- and what the Tar Heels need -- is more consistency. He said the unit generated bigger plays than they had all spring and maybe even the previous fall at times, then allowed negative plays due to lapses at others.

He and the rest of the staff are looking for a lot when they watch the young linemen play to know whether or not they can put them in a game, even as a second-teamer. But for Kapilovic, it's all relatively simple: trust.

"You've got to have trust. I have to trust that he's going to go out there and do his job. First and foremost, they have to know what they're doing because if you blow assignments, that's when you have really bad, explosive plays the opposite way," Kapilovic said.

"If he knows what he's doing and he can at least get to the guy, now you've got a chance to develop them. So there's got to be a trust there. If I don't trust that he can handle it, then he won't go out there."

It's an uphill battle for Kapilovic and the linemen as they try to get adjusted quickly. There's a reason that good offensive lines in college football are typically littered with juniors and seniors. It's a hard position to play, and there's only one real way to improve -- actual game reps.

Offensive line is one of the toughest positions -- if not the toughest position -- for a player right out of high school to play and play well.

"The mental part is huge for us for the offensive line. When you come in, it's like learning a foreign language, you've got so many calls. And then the speed of the game and the strength of the defensive guys these kids are going to face -- when you line up at receiver or running back, you don't face it every snap where up front, you're going to see it every snap," Kapilovic said.

"So it really is both, but they've got to know the mental part first."

Crowley and his teammates are very aware that they're viewed as the weak link. He said it fuels them, and they're eager to prove the doubters wrong.

Another part of what fuels them is those skill positions that the AP voters seemed to like so much. With a stable of excellent tailbacks, a returning starting quarterback and very good wideouts, their job gets easier.

"It gives us confidence for sure. That way we know that if we do our assignments right, we're definitely going to get yards," Crowley said.

In 2013, a line that some thought would be pretty good debuted against South Carolina -- Jadeveon Clowney and company, one of the best defensive lines in the country. The front half of UNC's schedule was relatively unforgiving in terms of opposing defenses, and there was no chance for the line to gain any confidence.

This year, UNC opens with an FCS opponent (Liberty). The young line should at least have a game or two (Game 2 is at home against San Diego State) to get live reps and come together as a unit.

In theory, anyway.

"We could be playing the Steelers or East Chatham Junior League. It's the same right now. It's about us," Kapilovic said. "We've got to be ready to go no matter who we face that first day."