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July 27, 2010

Erecting a rock wall

The foundation for every great football team is its lines, both offensive and defensive.

Carolina showed that kind of talent and production at on the defensive side at times last season. The Tar Heels' front four is capable of dominating in such a way that UNC does not have to blitz as much as some teams.

But the offensive line has been far from great. In fact, it was not very good early last season when the five people expected to start were sidelined with an injury or missing from the roster because of attrition.

"All the musical chairs we played with the offensive line, we never ever really got satisfied," Coach Butch Davis said.

Barring the same kind of bizarre injury parade on the offensive line this season, Davis and his coaches should feel more comfortable. Not satisfied by any stretch, but much more confident that the raw talent is better, the depth is better and the chance to become a far more productive group is light years beyond last season.

Kids such as Jonathan Cooper have played in games now. They have been through a spring practice. Cooper is starting to show the promise of his physical and mental ability.

"He's an extremely good athlete," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "He's a big guy. He's fast. He's very talkative. He is the guy who keeps that offensive line moving. He's always talking so much. He's an extremely high-energy guy. That is something you need on the offensive line."

Davis said that Cooper could be a great player before his career is done.

"He has great lateral movement," Davis said. "He has really, really excellent upper-body strength. He can get to the second level. He has enough speed that linebackers can't just run away from him. He can play either of the two guard positions, but ideally center is the perfect place for him. He's a very, very bright kid."

The good news is Cooper isn't alone.

"We're starting to get seven, eight, maybe nine guys who have a possibility of being ACC quality types of offensive linemen," Davis said.

There has been an addition to the talent with freshmen James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit enrolling in January and participating in spring practice and the summer workouts.

But the greatest improvement will be from the older players who earned some significant time a year ago.

"Alan Pelc, right now," Davis said, "is probably our best offensive lineman. Conceivably, he could start at all five positions. Last year he played both guard and center. He started and played the interior part. He could probably play right tackle if we needed him to.

"Mike Ingersoll probably was the most dramatically improved player in the offensive line last year," Davis said. "From week one to week 12, he got better and better and better every week. He's a former tight end. He has good feet. The one thing he didn't have last year that we're hoping he has now is a little more upper-body strength. He's a significantly stronger kid than he was a year ago. He's probably 310 pounds now."

Carl Gaskins is the forgotten man on the line. He injured a knee early last season and spent the year on the sideline. Now he will compete to start at left tackle.

"Carl Gaskins, as much as we love him and as much we have high expectations for him, he's never been in a game," Davis said. "On paper he looks good. We need him to mature and progress. If he can stay healthy, week one he'll be fairly good. Week two, he'll be a little bit better. And by the middle of the season, he'll probably be playing pretty good."

Then there are the freshmen and sophomores. Those kids bring a new level of size and athleticism to the Carolina line. These are the kids who have the potential, along with Cooper, to eventually turn this line into one of the better offensive lines in the ACC.

"James Hurst gives us another potential guy," Davis said. "Brennan Williams gives us another potential guy. Travis Bond, when we inserted him into the lineup at the end of the season, not only did we get a little more talented, we got bigger. He's a 325-pound kid who is 6-7 and has good athletic ability."

Now these kids just have to utilize the time they have in practice against the Tar Heels' defensive line.

"Going against our defensive linemen … is an enormous benefit," Davis said. "You have really good defensive linemen, it really challenges your offensive linemen to get good, going one-on-one, inside run drills, blitz drills.

"If they can go out there and have reasonably good success, block them some of the time, protect against them some of the time, then every week get better, then eventually it starts to become stalemates in which the defense doesn't dominate."


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