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April 7, 2011

Solid foundation

There are parts that a great football team can do without, but a superb offensive line is rarely one of those.

The foundation on which most championship offenses, and teams for that matter, are built is the offensive line.

Bill Dooley and Dick Crum produced some offensive linemen who went on to play in the National Football League. In Mack Brown's 10 years at UNC, he had some of the finest athletes and football teams to ever wear Carolina's uniforms.

Yet the best offensive line during Brown's years was the one he inherited from Crum following the 1987 season.

Since Brown's departure in 1997, Jason Brown, a first-team All-American, was the best offensive lineman to play at UNC.

This is changing.

Part of the formula for building a great football team the Jimmy Johnson way, which is the style Butch Davis models his teams, is a defense with large, run-stopping tackles.

The rest of the defense is constructed on pure out-and-out speed.

On offense, there are fast wide receivers, multiple running backs and a quarterback who can throw the ball accurately down the field.

Just as important, those teams all had enormous, athletic offensive lines that could protect the quarterback and create the running room to put games away in the late third and fourth quarters.

"We're more athletic [in the offensive line] than we've been at any time since I've been here," Davis said. "The depth is one thing, but we're also bigger. There is no question that this is probably one of the biggest offensive lines that I've ever had.

"It wasn't too awful long ago, a couple of years ago, that a lot of guys were 275, 280. So I think we're bigger. We're certainly a little bit stronger than we've been in the past, and a lot more depth.

Now the Tar Heel linemen all weigh more than 300 pounds. It's muscle, not fat. Brennan Williams is up to 320 pounds, and he looks as if someone drew him with a graphic design program on a computer.

"Last year I went from about 260 to about 300," Williams said. "That was a lot different. Now it is about being a lot stronger."

What is really amazing about this group is these players are bigger and stronger yet they are more flexible and nimble.

Their footwork is excellent.

Rising sophomore James Hurst (6-foot-7, 310 pounds) is such a fine athlete that he started all of last season as a true freshman -- at left tackle. For a team with a right-handed quarterback, left tackle is the premium position.

The left tackle has to block the freaks who play defensive end these days. He also has to be able to run block so the offense can stay balanced and hold onto the ball late in the game.

Even Hurst's teammates had a hard time believing a freshman could not only do the job but do it so well.

"I was absolutely blown away," said starting left guard Jonathan Cooper, who is 6-3, 310. "I feel like I have a senior playing beside me with his knowledge of the game.

"That was one of the things that impressed me the most, was his knowledge, his understanding, his ability to pick things up so quickly. He is very impressive. He's very mature. [Starting at left tackle as a freshman] is a feat not many can do."

As Davis said, depth is a development for this line. Davis and offensive line coach Sam Pittman are stockpiling quality athletes.

"One development in the offensive line is from a talent standpoint, but the biggest is probably depth," Davis said. "For the first time, conceivably, we're going to be coaching 10 to 11 guys that have got the potential to be really, really impactful, 'starter' type of players."

Another part of the formula is the familiarity this group is gaining by being young and growing up together. Cohesion is nice on the defensive line, but it is a requirement for successful offensive lines.

Blocking schemes calls change before the ball is snapped in today's game, with defenses shifting frequently in an effort to confuse offenses.

"We've made a huge jump," Cooper said. "Our comfort and knowledge has grown as a unit. We have a better understanding of our responsibilities and each other's responsibilities.

"There will be times when Cam [Holland], he's the center and he has a lot to do," Cooper said. "So there will be a time when he has a brain fart, 'What are we doing here? Or what is this we have?' And I will be able to tell him.

"Or I'll have a brain fart, and he'll be able to tell me."

This line is going to use its size to be more physical. With a running back as punishing as Ryan Houston, it makes for a beautiful match.

"You're going to see a lot more aggressiveness in running the ball," Williams said. "It's pretty good having someone that big [Houston]. You know you're going to at least get 4 yards, even if you miss every block."


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