by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- A great offensive line, North Carolina assistant coach Chris Kapilovic says, is a unit of players who know what each other is doing without even having to say it.
But three games into this season, "we're still learning how to say it,'' he said.
So go the growing (up) pains of a front that lost three starters to the NFL last season, and is still trying to find a cohesive voice and consistent push. As the Tar Heels' offense attempts to revive an attack that set dozens of records last season, but has topped 400 yards only once this year and managed only a measly 62 yards in the second half at Georgia Tech last Saturday, they know the effort begins up front.
"We're improving, but I think we're improving too slowly,'' said senior tackle James Hurst. "Three games is a fourth of a season, almost, and at this point, we're 1-2. I don't feel like we finished the last game, and that's not who we are as an offense or an offensive line. We've got to try to pick things up."
That's not such a simple feat, though, considering offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper, Brennan Williams and Travis Bond all joined tailback Gio Bernard in the NFL draft, leaving UNC to rebuild both its front and run game.
Head coach Larry Fedora has expressed disappointment in the latter, which gained only 101 yards against the Yellow Jackets and is averaging just 111.3 rushing yards per game (last in the ACC) this season. In addition, the Tar Heels are averaging only 374.3 yards per game (10th in the league) out of their no-huddle offense and already have allowed six sacks - only five fewer than 2012.
"This last game, we got better there [with the rushing game]," Kapilovic said, pointing out that UNC's 101 yards came on a fewer-than-normal 24 carries, "and then we took a step backward in pass protection. And then the week before that, we pass-blocked well and didn't handle the run game as well. And now we've got to put it all together."
Kapilovic said he has been impressed, in spurts, by sophomore Landon Turner (who played an "excellent" game against the Jackets) and redshirt freshmen Caleb Peterson and Jon Heck, "but can they do it two, three, four games in a row?" he asked. Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine are the veterans of the group, and expected to lead by both example and voice.
But with so many new bodies blocking beside them, they've had to make adjustments, as well.
"Playing next to a guy, you feel when he bumps you and you need to go off and block somebody else, and there's so many different unspoken things -- and when you put new guys in there, you can feel it and everything changes,'' Hurst said. "So it's practicing next to each other, and when you haven't played together, you have to talk about every single thing in order to be successful early. And that's where we're at if we really want to be successful."
Kapilovic graded the O-line as "average," thus far, with the potential to get better each day that they, and the offense, become more comfortable and cohesive.
His position group needs to improve, he said, but it's a team effort: "It's also the backs breaking the tackles, it's the receivers making the block, and it's the quarterback, who's in charge of handling pressure - when they bring pressure, his job is to throw it out, and now run into bad looks. Everybody's got to work together, but it all starts up front."
And communication is key.
"There have been times when it feels like we're speaking several different languages [on the line],'' Hurst said. "But this week, it feels like we're speaking one ... and that's a good sign."