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August 2, 2012

Camp Preview: Offensive Line

As North Carolina gets going with training camp this summer, the Tar Heel offensive line appears to be significantly slimmer and trimmer than this time a year ago---and even since the spring time.

And as the UNC offensive linemen roll back into Chapel Hill on Thursday for their pre-camp weigh-ins, head coach Larry Fedora is looking forward to seeing those numbers.

"I'm really looking forward to weighing in on August 2 and seeing where they're all at," said Fedora. "Most of those guys were overweight. We told them what they needed to be. Our strength coach Lou Hernandez and our nutritionist went to work on them and have done a good job with them."

The experience this particular group of Tar Heel offensive linemen brings to the table cannot be understated---four players are going into either their third or fourth year as a starter---but the fact that most of them have gotten trimmer and fitter over the past few months speaks volumes as to the potential of this unit if they can stay healthy.

"They're definitely athletic enough," said Fedora of his returning linemen. "These guys are not only athletic enough, they're big. They're really big. (But) if you look at them now, compared to what they were at the beginning of the summer, they're not nearly as big as they were."

The Tar Heels are returning four starters along the offensive line this fall---tackles James Hurst and Brennan Williams, as well as guards Jonathan Cooper and Travis Bond.

While Bond figures to come in around the 340-345 range, most of the rest of the projected starters figure to be somewhere in the range of 300-315 pounds.

"I know our strength coach (Hernandez) has carved a little bit of weight off some of these guys. Each and every one of them, to a man, has gotten stronger but they've also cut body fat. That just means their work capacity is going up and they'll be able to do some great things this year."

With so much returning experience, the Tar Heels have to feel good about where things stand along the offensive line even with all the adjustments with the new offensive scheme.

There is one position with a first-time starter, as UNC is working in Russell Bodine, who replaces multi-year starter Cam Holland at the center position.

Center is obviously a critical position along the offensive line given the play calls that must be made along the line, as well as identifying opposing defensive fronts and aiding his teammates in pass protection calls.

A center's role is intensified in the spread offense, with plays being called right up at the line of scrimmage and things happening much more quickly than in more traditional offenses.

The good thing is that Bodine isn't new to the college game, as the redshirt sophomore has had two full seasons of practice and two spring seasons to adjust to his new role as a starter.

He also got significant playing time during the 2011 season, so taking the field with the first unit in the season opener against Elon the first Saturday in September shouldn't be all that daunting to Bodine, one of the strongest players on the entire UNC roster.

"Russell had a good spring. He's that old school kind of offensive lineman," said Coach Fedora.

"I like the way he plays, he's got a nasty attitude. He's an old school kind of guy. He doesn't mind scrapping with you. Those are the kind of guys that I really like. I'm looking forward to seeing how Russell progresses over the season."

While getting the starters up to speed will naturally be the primary goal this summer, the Tar Heel coaches will also be looking to build a solid two-deep during camp, with several candidates vying for spots including Kiaro Holts, Landon Turner, David Collins, Peyton Jenest, T.J. Leifheit, Nick Appel, and Jarrod James.

It remains to be seen if any of the four incoming freshmen offensive linemen---John Ferranto, Jon Heck, J.J. Patterson, and Caleb Peterson---will fight their way into the two-deep right out of the gate, but given UNC's experience, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic may very well be afforded the luxury of redshirting most or all of those guys barring injuries.

While the experience factor looms large for the UNC offensive line this summer, the fact that it's still a brand-new offensive scheme they're learning and an entirely new way of doing things with the spread offense means that this is still very much a group in an adjustment phase.

"I always enjoyed walking off the field with those guys (the offensive linemen) at the end of spring ball," said Coach Fedora. "I love messing with those big guys like that."

"We were coming off the field---it was like the seventh day of practice---and (James Hurst) said 'Coach, I've had more reps in seven days than I had in 15 last year.' I said, 'Well get used to it, that's what it's going to be like. That's just the way it is.'

The speed adjustment is unquestionably the biggest thing that the Tar Heel offensive linemen were challenged with during the spring season, and that will be one of the big things that determines how quickly this unit gels this August.

Simply stated, if the UNC offensive line plays fast and aggressively this summer, practices will run more smoothly and the team will be better prepared for the fall.

"What you saw them (the offensive linemen do) was make progress each and every day, and by the end of spring there was a comfort level there," Fedora said.

In Coach Fedora's world it should be a good thing for the offensive linemen not having to huddle. You save energy getting right back up to the line instead of walking bath and forth to and from a huddle.

At least that's the way Fedora sees it, and surely he's not going to be making it any easier on the big guys in training camp this August, regardless of how well or not well they're adjusting to the speed of plays.

"You would think, you don't have to run back to a huddle and you don't have to run back up to the line of scrimmage anymore (in the spread offense)," said Fedora.

"Eighty plays (over the course of a game), that's well over a 1,000 yards that you save. (But) there's just something about going back there and holding hands and mentally relaxing until the quarterback gives you the play."

"Then you kind of mosey up to the line of scrimmage and 'Ok, now I've got to think. Now I've got to lock in.' Well, now you're down in your stance and you're locked in because we're in attack mode all the time."

"It takes time," Fedora continued. "We'll go back in fall camp and it'll be tough on them again. If we can get the temperature high enough and all those things that we need to have a tough fall camp, we'll see how it goes."



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