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October 21, 2009As North Carolina has been getting ready for Thursday night's game with Florida State over the last week and a half, the extra time has allowed UNC's banged-up offensive line to get healthier and more cohesive.
It's been much discussed how the Tar Heels have been decimated with injuries along the offensive line this fall, losing four out of five starters at some point or another along with the team's starting tight end.
The good news is that two of those players---left guard Jonathan Cooper and left tackle Kyle Jolly---are expected to be at or near full strength for the Seminoles, while another, tight end Zack Pianalto, has been making progress in practice and could very well play against FSU.
"It's painful to go through. It really is. Nobody wants to lose Jonathan Cooper. Nobody wants to lose Zack Pianalto, Kyle Jolly, and those guys," said UNC head coach Butch Davis.
One thing that the coaches did during last week's bye to help bring along the injured offensive linemen was giving them some time out of practice, while taking advantage of that time off the field by working on preparation and scouting for Florida State.
"All the guys that have been nicked up, we pretty much held them out of practice last week," said Davis. "The most prudent part was that they got to watch some film, and they got a chance to take part in some walk-throughs and some identification of fronts and coverages and some of the blitzes, but as far as the actual physical practice of it, we held most of those guys out during the week and they didn't return until Sunday."
"With the bye week we were able to get a lot more 'mental' reps and have a lot of practice, but also be able to sit out some reps and not have to take all of them," said Cooper. "Now we're able to turn it up this week even more because we've had enough time just to let things heal."
"That (watching film on FSU) was very important, because they do have a scheme that's not very complicated but they just have the personnel to execute it fairly well," added Cooper. "Just the film, knowing the guy across from you, is going to help us immensely."
Cooper indicated on Monday that while he's still wearing a protective brace, he will be in the starting lineup against FSU.
"I may still have to continue to use the ankle brace that I wear on my ankle, but I do feel like it's getting a lot stronger and a lot better," he said. "I may have lost one step or two speed-wise, but I'm still moving fairly well with it (the brace) on. It doesn't limit me at all, but it keeps my ankle kind of secure."
Cooper also elaborated on some of his injured teammates.
Lowell Dyer, he's actually working and getting a few individual reps in practice," said Cooper. "We thought he had a season-ending shoulder injury, but he's actually looking to come back pretty soon here."
Kyle Jolly, he hurt his ankle, but he's been working hard in the treatment room as always, just working on his ankle, and he's looking good and ready to play Thursday night," Cooper added. "It was very important from an injury standpoint, and mentally, just to regroup."
Working the last couple of weeks coming off a victory has also greatly aided the offensive line's spirit and morale in practice.
"We were able to end the first half of the season with a win---it was a FBS opponent, but it's just a win nonetheless---and now people are beginning to coming back," said Cooper. "We're beginning to look like a real offensive unit now. (Zack) Pianalto is coming back and we're looking pretty good, so it was a great time for the bye week."
Coach Davis has found one silver lining out of the offensive line's plight this fall---that it's allowed some of the young linemen, who are going to be the future of the program in the coming years, to get game action when they may otherwise not have gotten it.
"It (all the injuries) has forced some guys (to play)," said Davis. "Travis Bond got into some games. Brennan Williams got into some games. Greg Elleby got into some games and started in the offensive line. That certainly is a benefit to the football team if not in the short-term, certainly in the long term.
"Lowell Dyer---we've had to replace Lowell at center with Cam (Holland)---and I think one thing that's very evident is that every single week Cam Holland gets better, as you would suspect," Davis added. "The more you get a chance to play uninterrupted and you get a chance to play by the same guys side-by-side, you get to see some improvement by him."
Carolina's offensive line has got to find a way to get it going---against the Seminoles and against upcoming opponents---if they are to find some success running the ball and help keep UNC's top-rated in the ACC defense off the field as much as possible.
"It (running the football) is an area that we definitely have to improve on, and I think that one of the things that's very important is getting healthy in the offensive line, getting some of those guys back, so that we can get that consistency and continuity of guys playing side-by-side with each other," said Coach Davis.
"I think that we've got two very good running backs. I think that Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston are both guys that given the opportunity and with the offensive line and the tight ends playing together, that we expect to have some success running the football," Davis added. "But it's a work in progress. It's a very important of the success of winning any game is that you cannot play and you cannot win with just a one-dimensional game plan."
"We've got a lot of work to do---you know what I mean?" said Cooper. "I'd just say we have to take care of our assignments and not let what they (Florida State) are doing or coming in with all that moving around get to your head. Just be ready to do what you know to do. I'd just say being aware of our gaps and our assignments, because they do a lot of moving around. As long as you stay on the track that you know you're supposed to do, you'll eventually wind up on the right guy."
Although practicing on Sunday and Monday were unique experiences for Cooper and the rest of the Tar Heel offensive line, the unit came out and had arguably its best practice since training camp this past Sunday---a session that the unit is very much hopeful will carry into a solid performance tomorrow night against the Seminoles.
"Sunday practice was a little bit different, but it worked out fine," said Cooper. "The concept of it seemed different, but once we got going it was full of energy. Coach Davis said this might have been one of the best practices he's seen out of the O-line in a couple of months. It was just full of energy and hard-hitting. It was a practice that we haven't seen in a little bit, but it was great."