Updated: Sep 6, 2020
We conclude our offensive position previews with a trip to the trenches where the Tar Heels will look to take a step forward in the second season under offensive line coach Stacy Searls. Last year, the group held up well, especially in the run game, paving the way for two 900+ yard rushers. The group will need to do a better job of protecting the quarterback after allowing 37 sacks a year ago, a number that ties for the 15th-most in the country. With four of the five starters returning there is reason to believe this unit will be able to take a step forward in 2020.
Junior guard Marcus McKethan looks to be the leader of the group after a strong sophomore season. In 818 snaps a year ago, McKethan allowed just two sacks and posted 24 knockdowns in the first ten games of the season. He graded out with an 80 or better and was easily the most consistent of the Tar Heel offensive linemen a year ago. With Charlie Heck now gone, McKethan will now become the anchor of this offensive line.
Alongside McKethan will be the most experienced member of the offensive line, junior tackle Jordan Tucker. Last year, Tucker led the returning players in knockdowns with 41 in 831 snaps played and graded out at a 75 or higher in seven of his thirteen starts. While he will need to improve in pass protection, Tucker is a phenomenal run blocker and should be set up for another productive season.
Left guard is still a bit cloudy in terms of who will start long term, but it feels like there might be a clear. Sophomore Joshua Ezeudu started the final five games of the season at left guard with plenty of success and that is why he holds the advantage heading into this battle. Ezeudu played 516 snaps a year ago and allowed just one sack all season, giving the Tar Heels another strong pass protector on the inside to team with McKethan on the other side. The success of the offense late in the season was due to a multitude of reasons, but it serves Ezeudu’s case well that just about every area of the offense improved late in the season. It would honestly be a shock if he was not the starter whenever this team takes the field for the first game of the season.
Left tackle is probably the biggest question mark along the offensive line with stalwart Charlie Heck graduated, but the team seems to have found their solution. Sophomore Asim Richards is the name that we’ve heard a lot about this offseason and he seems like the favorite here after appearing in nine games as a freshman and playing well in the limited offensive reps that he saw in the final three games of the season. It’s a significant step up for Richards, but from the flashes he has shown, there is a lot of promise and upside here for him.
Junior center Brian Anderson is back after starting the final eleven games of the season a year ago, but he is in a fight to hold on to his starting job. Anderson flashed at times, grading out with a 77 or higher in three games, but struggled to find consistency throughout the season after taking over for Nick Polino, who went down with a lower-body injury early in the season against Miami. The goal for Anderson, if he can hold on to the starting job, has to be to become more consistent because he has shown that he has the skills to be a solid piece for the Tar Heels on the offensive line.
He'll be challenged for the starting job by Ty Murray, who looked very promising in the three games that he appeared in last year. Murray graded out at a 78 and posted a highlight reel knockdown in his most significant outing of the season against rival NC State. The future is bright for Murray and he has the skills necessary to play if the Tar Heels need him to.
The interior depth is strong and experienced. Sophomore Ed Montilus has some nice experience that could come in handy if needed after starting the season’s first eight games at left guard. While he had success as a run blocker, he had some struggles in pass protection and, overall, had a lot of up-and-downs before losing the starting job. Montilus must develop more consistency and improve his pass protection skills if he wants to win back that job at some point this season.
Junior Billy Ross started every game back in 2018 at left guard and provided nice depth, playing in nine games in a rotational role and stepping up when needed against Appalachian State. Ross should once again be the top rotational option behind whoever loses the battle at left guard.
Sophomore William Barnes appeared in twelve of the thirteen games a year ago as both a rotational and special teams player. While this may not have been the role that we once envisioned for Barnes, he has settled into the role well and he has the talent to succeed if the Tar Heels need him to play a larger role.
The depth at tackle is relatively thin, especially when you factor the loss of Triston Miller, who will not play in 2020. Redshirt freshman Wyatt Tunall missed all of last season due to an injury, but he has some upside that will likely land him a spot on the two-deep when the season begins. His athleticism is a good fit for what Searls wants in his offensive linemen and the year in the system is definitely helpful.
Two true freshmen will be looking to make an impact at tackle this season, as well. Trey Zimmerman enrolled early and is more highly touted of the two players in question here, but he was scheduled to miss the spring recovering from shoulder surgery. With everything that has happened with COVID-19, it’s unclear where he is in his recovery and if he’ll be able to participate in fall camp.
As for Cayden Baker, he fits the same mold that Tunall does at tackle. While he could benefit from a year in the strength and conditioning program, the lack of depth here may give him a chance to earn some reps in 2020.
Two more true freshmen will attempt to make their presence felt on the interior this season. Jonathan Adorno enrolled back in January, but didn’t get his shot to make an impression in the spring. He will get that shot in the fall and has the talent to make an impact, but the question is can he navigate everyone that is ahead of him at guard?
He will be joined by Malik McGowan, the big road-grader who will move to guard after spending the bulk of his time at the high school level at tackle. There are some things to like about McGowan’s game, but he will likely need some time to transition, especially after playing in a Wing-T offense for a bulk of his time in high school.
One name that will be interesting to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Wisdom Asaboro, who is expected to make the move over from the defensive line this fall. At 6’8, 295 lbs, he already has the size needed, but now the staff has to be able to find the best fit for him. Fall camp will give the staff a chance to start working on that.
The team has a solid group of walk-on’s that are expected to return this season. Junior Tobechi Nwokeji is expected to return after being a part of the two-deep at one time last spring, while Nick Mackovic, Jacob Setterlind, Noland Brown and Hunter Shope will all be back.
Projected Depth Chart
#72 Asim Richards, So.
#75 Joshua Ezeudu, So.
#57 Cayden Baker, Fr.
#66 Tobechi Nwokeji, Jr.
#75 Joshua Ezeudu, So.
#63 Ed Montilus, So.
#52 Jonathan Adorno, Fr.
#54 Chance Carroll, Fr.
#55 Ty Murray, RFr.
#68 Brian Anderson, Jr.
#65 Nick Mackovic, So.
#53 Jacob Setterlind, So.
#73 Marcus McKethan, Jr.
#76 William Barnes, So.
#56 Billy Ross, Jr.
#64 Malik McGowan, Fr.
#79 Hunter Shope, RFr.
#74 Jordan Tucker, Jr.
#51 Wyatt Tunall, RFr.
#67 Trey Zimmerman, Fr.
#77 Wisdom Asaboro, RFr.
#70 Noland Brown, RFr.