Despite a mostly veteran offensive line, North Carolina’s offense took a step back in 2016.
UNC’s points per game, total offense, yards per play, total plays and yards per game all fell considerably compared to 2015. The Tar Heels went from 224.43 rushing yards per game in 2015 to just 145.85 in 2016.
Now, the Tar Heels are facing a mass exodus from the offensive line unit heading into spring workouts. A pair of seniors and multi-year starters — right tackle Jon Heck and center Lucas Crowley — have left the rotation. In addition, a pair of seniors who missed most or all the 2016 season with injuries — John Ferranto and Caleb Peterson — have graduated out.
The Tar Heels return three offensive line starters from the Sun Bowl — rising seniors Bentley Spain and R.J. Prince, as well as rising sophomore Tommy Hatton. Spain will return to left tackle, while Prince heads into spring workouts as the favorite at right guard. A couple of UNC’s 2016 signees who redshirted this past season — Luke Elder at left tackle and Tyler Pritchett at right guard — are primed to enter the two-deep as backups to Spain and Prince.
Hatton moved all over the offensive front as a redshirt freshman in 2016. After starting the opener against Georgia at right guard, Hatton moved over to left guard following Peterson’s season-ending back injury.
Hatton was a center in high school, however, and was recruited to UNC to play that position.
Hatton moving to center opens room for rising senior Brad Henson, or rising sophomore Nick Polino, to step into the starting spot at left guard. Another option for the Tar Heels at center will be redshirt freshman Jay-Jay McCargo.
Henson has paid his dues, seeing backup action in the UNC guard rotation each of the last two seasons. But he will get competition at left guard in the spring from Polino, who backed up Hatton after Peterson went down. With his ability to snap, Henson is capable of emerging as another option at center as well.
William Sweet, a rising sophomore, is in position to assume Heck’s starting spot at right tackle. Heck’s younger brother, Charlie, is a converted tight end who will enter the spring projected as the No. 2 right tackle behind Sweet.
Earlier this month, UNC enrolled a highly touted 2017 offensive tackle in Jonah Melton. But Melton is coming off an ACL tear suffered last spring and hasn’t played in a game since 2015. Melton would benefit from a redshirt year and then challenge to replace Spain on the Tar Heels’ first team in 2018.