The biggest theme for North Carolina heading into Saturday's in-state matchup with East Carolina this week has been the team's decimated depth along the offensive line.
While UNC head coach Butch Davis expressed optimism that Jonathan Cooper would play this week after returning to practice on Wednesday, the team will be without starting center Lowell Dyer for a minimum of three to four weeks.
"It's been a little bit of a challenge to say the least over the last couple of weeks, but I think that we're encouraged that Jonathan Cooper is going to participate a little bit in practice, so maybe the tide is turning in the other direction," said Davis.
Third-year sophomore Cam Holland stepped in and played the entire game at Connecticut in Dyer's absence, and he has now stepped into the role as UNC's starting center, although the Tar Heel coaches are preparing other players at the position in the scenario that Holland goes down.
"There's two (other) guys (working at center)," said Davis. "Alan Pelc has played there, and he played there actually in the game this past Saturday for only one play when Cam lost his shoe, and Jonathan Cooper is another guy that has played center before. Between those three guys we feel like it gives us a little bit of flexibility. The only downside to that is obviously you don't like shuffling and juggling the lineup, even during the course of practice very much."
Regardless of whether he's truly ready or not, Davis said that Holland has no choice but to step to the plate and play well for the Tar Heels to be successful offensively in the coming weeks. Getting the brunt of the practice reps should help him in that regard.
"I think he has to (get himself ready)," said Davis in regards to Holland. "I think that he got an opportunity, which was fortunate for us, he got a chance to play in The Citadel game pretty significantly in the second half, so it wasn't just total stage fright to go in there (against UConn)."
"The one thing that certainly I think helps every player is when they get a chance to practice during the course of the week and actually take the reps," Davis added.
"Kind of the 'rule of thumb' is that our starters throughout the course of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday's practice probably take somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of the reps and the backups get probably 25 percent of the opportunities, so it will dramatically help him in his (Holland's) preparation this week."
While Holland has been growing into his new role at starting center, a couple other offensive players---Ed Barham and Christian Wilson---have stepped in to replace tight end Zack Pianalto, who dislocated his foot in last Saturday's win over UConn and is out for at least a month.
"Ed, he's a legitimate, true tight end, and I think he's worked very hard," said Davis. "Two years ago you didn't know whether or not he would be as significant a contributor as he has become. Last year he made some really good strides getting in on short-yardage, goal line, some of the backup tight end stuff behind Richard Quinn, and then he worked even harder in the offseason to try to improve his speed."
"He's very strong. We feel confident and comfortable he'll do a good job," Davis added of Barham.
"In high school he (Wilson) was kind a running back/linebacker/H-back type of guy," Davis continued. "He was a skilled 'athlete.' But he's another guy that's probably put on 25 pounds since he's been here in the two years, and he's like all the other guys, he's trying to grow through that transition of being that H-back into a tight end."
Both Barham and Wilson, along with possibly Vince Jacobs, will get action at tight end for the Tar Heels against the Pirates, and it will be interesting to see how comfortable offensive coordinator John Shoop feels in getting them involved in the passing game.
Switching gears to the kicking game, Davis said that the team hasn't had a great deal of opportunities over the past several weeks to work on long-distance field goals with sophomore Casey Barth, but this week they've made it a priority knowing that upcoming games could very well come down to a game-winning field goal attempt in the fourth quarter or overtime.
"We haven't really tried a lot of 45 to 53, 54 yard field goals in practice (because of) just the time limitations of it," said Davis. "(This week) we worked an awful lot on field goals between 35 and 50 yards, just to give him (Barth) a little more extra opportunities to practice and deal with the pressure of having to kick it and kick it solidly and stuff."
Davis is generally pleased with the play of Barth and punter Grant Schallock, who are both adjusting to their new roles as starters for the Tar Heels.
"I clearly think, as in the case with both of these guys, they're early in their career," Davis said. "You hope that each week they'll get a little more confident. They'll get a little bit more into the routine. I think he (Schallock) is doing fine."