Without the stable production and leadership of multi-year starters Jonathan Cooper and Travis Bond, North Carolina is starting over in a lot of ways at the offensive guard positions this spring.
While there is an veteran in third-year sophomore Landon Turner who is game-tested and eager to take the reigns replacing Bond on the right side, UNC is currently working a redshirt freshman, Caleb Peterson, with the first team on the left.
Turner and Peterson were Carolina's first-team guards in last week's scrimmage at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, and right now they're the two guys with the inside track to the two starting spots.
"I think they're excited about it. Right now it's their position to lose, and it'll be interesting to see how they (Turner and Peterson) performed, because I'd say both of them probably got about 70 reps (in Thursday's scrimmage)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora.
"Things are going great. I love football, and it's a blast. Things are a little different. I miss the old guys---I miss Travis and Coop, all them---but it's a new page in Carolina football and I'm pretty excited about it," said Turner in a recent interview with Tar Heel Illustrated.
Turner has the benefit of having gotten considerable practice and game repetitions a season ago, when injuries to senior right tackle Brennan Williams forced Bond to move outside and gave the then-redshirt freshman a chance to prove himself.
"I really am very appreciative of the experience that I got last season. I think it's really helped me coming into this spring, and I feel much more comfortable with the playbook and I feel more instinctual. I can play faster because of that," Turner told us.
"It was huge (getting to play on Saturdays). It's a night and day difference having that game speed. Being able to experience that and know that, will help me. Not only (during) spring ball, but before that watching plays, watching film. I got a lot of valuable experience from it."
"Even last since last season I feel a lot more comfortable in the offense and the playbook," Turner continued. "I pick up things better. I'm more instinctual. I'm trying to challenge myself to see more, watch more film, see blitzes when they're coming and all that good stuff. Football smarts is really where I've grown a lot since the end of the season."
Turner's biggest goal this spring is to continue mastering the North Carolina playbook---and according to his teammates, he's making substantial progress to that end.
"My personal goals are to master the playbook so just everything is instinctual and I can help other guys out and call things out for the offense, and physically getting stronger, being able to play lower, play faster and all that good stuff. Just kind of honing in on my technique," Turner said.
It's been especially beneficial this spring having Turner in the fold with some experience considering that rising senior left tackle James Hurst hasn't been practicing at full speed this March and April, and the left side is being held down by youngsters such as Peterson, Kiaro Holts, and John Ferranto, among others, in his absence.
"He's definitely a veteran," rising junior center Russell Bodine said of Turner.
"It's good to have him over there. I don't really have to worry about so much making calls to that (the right) side. I can let him make those calls and let me worry about the other side, where we have the younger guys. It's definitely a help."
"Hurst isn't out there (this spring), so we're getting a lot of guys looks. A guy may be on the left side and go over and flip on the right side. We're trying to find out the best fit to what it's going to be," added Fedora.
"And then also at the same time develop depth, knowing that those guys, somebody next year is going to end up stepping in and playing. Somebody is going to roll an ankle. Somebody is going to have some kind of a problem. And somebody else is going to have to step in there and play."
Peterson doesn't have the benefit of game experience---yet---but he's getting tested every day in practice as he assumes the role of 'heir apparent' to Cooper, one of the more decorated UNC offensive linemen in recent memory who is sure to hear his name called early in the NFL Draft in a couple weeks.
It hasn't been a picnic every single moment, but Peterson is learning what it takes to step into the shoes of a guy like Cooper at left guard and, to coin a phrase, take the torch and run with it.
"Right now Caleb Peterson is coming in as a redshirt freshman and he's doing a good job. He's a physical player. He'll go out there and give it everything he's got," said Bodine. "He's got a long way to go, as would any freshman. So we're just working to get there as a unit.
"We're having some growing pains. You lose three guys, they're all going to the league, there's only so much you can do," added Turner. "I really feel confident in our chemistry, because we're a tight group and I know that we've all been working with the young guys to get our offensive line solid by the end of the spring ball."
"We're tight in the offensive line room. He (Peterson) can fall back on us. We're trying to bring him along, get him experience, and I'm sure he'll be ready for South Carolina."
Behind Turner at the right guard position is another redshirt freshman, J.J. Patterson, who is also learning the ropes as a major college interior lineman.
"He (Patterson) is having growing pains. We've really got to work with him. He's a young guy. He hasn't played a lot, but that's why we have to work with him. We've got young guys, so we've got to continue to keep working with him and just kind of pound it into him. You know what I mean?" Turner said.
The young UNC linemen have been leaning heavily on the two returning full-time starters, Bodine and Hurst, as well as fifth-year senior David Collins, the backup to Peterson at left guard, for guidance and vital leadership during the offseason months.
"They're our leaders during the offseason," Turner said. "They ran meetings and helped the guys along, and they're instrumental to our offensive line's success. I think their experience has been crucial to growing up this offensive line and these young guys that we have."
Turner believes the unit as a whole is making progress towards building a solid two-deep rotation that will continue building UNC's reputation for aggressive, road-plowing interior linemen who can create the space for Carolina's playmakers to do just that, make plays.
"Offensive line-wise, we want to establish a nice two-deep going into the season. We want to get more physical, just be nasty. We want to establish a physical identity on the team," Turner added. "We love that. PTR. Pound The Rock. That's what we do. We're hard-working, and that's kind of the reputation we live by, so it's easy to embrace."