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Heel Tough Blog: 2023 Position Previews- OL

Lee Coleman- Getty Images

We continue our in-depth look at the 2023 Tar Heel offense with the unit that will ultimately determine what this offense looks like. In the first ten games of the season a year ago, the Tar Heel offensive line was an average unit and the result was one of the best offenses in the entire country. In the final four games of the season, the unit completely fell apart, allowing 14 sacks and 84 quarterback pressures and dropping from an average of 163.9 yards rushing per game to 127.5. Under the direction of a third offensive line coach in three years, this unit must recover from that rough patch at the end of the year and finish stronger this year. If they can do that, this offense has a chance to be one of the best in the country once again.


Everything starts in the middle with grad senior Corey Gaynor, who will anchor the unit for the second straight season. He was one of just two significant contributors along the offensive line a year ago to grade out above a 70 in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus, allowing just 13 total quarterback pressures. Improving his run blocking is the next step that the team needs him to take, but he is the one member of this unit that is guaranteed to at least be solid week in and week out.


Everyone else has gigantic question marks, including the three returning starters from a year ago. Senior William Barnes is making the move from right guard to left tackle with Asim Richards’ departure and will have to show marked improvement as a pass protector this season. Last year, he graded out at a 57.2 in pass protection, the third-worst of the offensive linemen that played 200+ snaps. He allowed only two sacks, but allowed the second-most total pressures amongst those expected to be full-time starters this season. As a run blocker, he didn’t grade out well at a 55.0, but the team averaged 6.5 yards per carry when running behind right guard. Hopefully that success run behind him can translate with his move and he can make a drastic improvement in pass protection.


Speaking of drastic improvement protecting the passer, that’s what the team needs from the other starting tackle spot as well. Grad senior Spencer Rolland might have graded out at a 66.2 in pass pro, but he allowed team highs in sacks (6) and total pressures allowed (43). In the run game, he graded out as the best of the Tar Heel starters, but the team averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt when running off right tackle a year ago. All around, they need Rolland to be better than he was a year ago, something that is certainly possible after a full year at the top level of the sport following his transfer from Harvard.


The two starting guard spots will be in the hands of a Group of 5 transfer and a rotational member of the unit that has proven himself enough this offseason. The transfer is junior Willie Lampkin, who comes in from Coastal Carolina, and looks like he has done enough to earn the starting job. While he is a smaller guy at 5’11, 290 lbs. and will have to adjust to the higher level of competition, it’s hard to argue with what he was able to do at his previous stop. Last year for the Chanticleers, he graded out as the team’s best run blocker (76.3) and overall offensive lineman (71.7), but did have his worst year in pass protection, allowing a sack and 13 total pressures. Those numbers would still be a major upgrade from what the Tar Heels saw their guards produce a year ago and those came while he was playing center. In 2020 and 2021 when he was playing guard, he posted grades of 78.1 and 85.2 respectively in pass protection and allowed just 14 total pressures in that two year span. If he could even closely resemble that this season, that would be huge for this unit.


Senior Jonathan Adorno has been a rotational piece for the team along the offensive line each of the last two years, but early reports from fall camp have indicated that he has elevated himself into a starting role. If you look at his grades, they aren’t great, but they are better than those of the other starting option and it feels like there is a chance for him to improve as a starter. It’s cautious optimism, though, and this is the most worrisome spot along the offensive line right now.


The other starting option is grad senior Ed Montilus, who started all 14 games a year ago at left guard. His three major grades were all the lowest in their respective categories on the team and his five sacks and 31 total pressures allowed are simply inexplicable for a guard. The good news is, he has proven he has value in a rotational role back in the 2021 season and that feels like that will be the perfect role for him.


Unfortunately, that is where the rotation that the staff trust stops. Sophomore tackle Diego Pounds is probably the closest to adding his name to that group, but he just isn’t there yet. He was one of the few that looked good for that second offensive line unit back in the spring and his teammates have bragged about the player that he can be. A strong finish to fall camp could allow him to become part of the rotation and set him up to eventually start if one of the two starters struggles that better.


Redshirt freshman tackle Trevyon Green could be in that same boat. Anytime there is talk about expanding the rotation, his name comes up and if he had been able to participate in the spring, he may already be in it. The door is open for him as well and a good showing in these last two weeks could be enough to get him in that rotation.


Outside of those two, it seems like everyone is just fighting to be a part of the two deep. Redshirt freshman guard Zach Rice is a guy that many fans thought they would hear from this offseason, but he is still working to transition to the college level at the guard spot. The hope is that he can take another step throughout the next few months, but he will likely have to wait until next year to be a part of the rotation.


Junior Malik McGowan has gotten himself into good shape and has a chance to settle in on the two-deep at guard. He had a solid showing in the spring game while a lot of the other offensive linemen struggled. This could be his year to finally climb the depth chart a little bit.


True freshman R.J. Grigsby looked set to fight for one of the backup guard spots, but that will be on hold with a lower-body injury that has him sidelined for 4-6 weeks. He was expected to bring versatility to the Tar Heel offensive line, as well, with all the positions he was able to play in high school, but he may have to wait until next season depending on how the staff goes about ramping him back up.


Sophomore Eli Sutton got his shot to impress the staff in the spring when Green was on the shelf, but doesn’t seem to have been able to. He had a rough spring game and now is buried behind what the team already has at tackle. It seems like another season of a deeper depth role for him is on the way.


Redshirt freshman Justin Kanyuk also looks destined for a deeper depth role on the interior of the unit. Grigsby’s injury will likely give him the opportunity for more reps, which he’ll have to take advantage of, but it’s hard to see him being in the two deep over Rice or McGowan right now.


There are a couple of true freshmen besides Grigsby that will be a part of the unit this season. Interior offensive lineman D.J. Geth saw a decent amount of reps in the spring game at center and took his lumps, but he will have a chance to be a contributor down the line for the team. The same goes for Nolan McConnell at tackle, who has done a great job of adding weight since arriving to campus.


The unit will feature four walk-ons this season. Junior Chance Carroll has the best chance to make an impact, but that would involve a lot of injuries on the interior of the offensive line. Sophomore Carter Kulka and redshirt freshmen Bo Burkes and Jarvis Hicks are the other three on the roster.


Projected Depth Chart

LT

#76 William Barnes, Sr.

#61 Diego Pounds, So.

#72 Nolan McConnell, Fr.

#60 Carter Kulka, RFr.

LG

#53 Willie Lampkin, Jr.

#63 Ed Montilus, Gr.

#74 Justin Kanyuk, RFr.

C

#65 Corey Gaynor, Gr.

#68 D.J. Geth, Fr.

#54 Chance Carroll, Jr.

RG

#52 Jonathan Adorno, Sr.

#55 Zach Rice, RFr.

#64 Malik McGowan, Jr.

#69 Jarvis Hicks Jr., RFr.

RT

#75 Spencer Rolland, Gr.

#78 Trevyon Green, RFr.

#73 Eli Sutton, So.

#79 Bo Burkes, RFr.

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