UNC O-line a unknown heading into spring

The good news: North Carolina returns offensive tackle James Hurst, an All-ACC candidate for 2013, and center Russell Bodine.

The bad news: The Tar Heels have to replace three starters up front, including All-American Jonathan Cooper.

Much of the focus surrounding North Carolina this spring will be on how the Tar Heels are going to compensate for the early departure of running back Giovani Bernard to the NFL, but more important are the holes that need to be filled up front. A year ago, North Carolina’s offensive line was its strength, and arguably one of the best in the ACC. This spring, there are far more questions and inexperience.

“How do you replace Jonathan Cooper?” coach Larry Fedora asked. “I mean, the guy is the best one that I’ve ever coached inside. I don’t know that we’ll replace him. We’ve got some guys who are going to compete for those jobs and they’ll step up. I’m still going to expect us to be better on the offensive line than we were last year.”

Those are high expectations, considering North Carolina will have to turn to several redshirt freshmen with zero collegiate game experience for answers. It will help that Landon Turner started the final four games of 2012, and Bodine returns at center, along with Hurst. The two main questions are at right tackle and left guard.

Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson is the likely frontrunner at guard, but considering the lack of experience, not even those within the program know who will emerge at the top of the depth chart. John Ferranto, a redshirt freshman, could be a leading candidate at right tackle, but Jon Heck is another option. Nick Appel, a junior, has played guard and tackle sparingly, and will also be in the mix. Both Peterson and Ferranto were recruited by Fedora’s staff, but don’t forget about Kiaro Holts, who was ranked the No. 8 offensive guard in his recruiting class. He has been injured most of his career, but could also be very valuable this fall.

“I don’t really worry about it,” Fedora said of the uncertainty. “I know Chris Kapilovic will have guys ready. He’ll have them ready. Now, will we be there in the spring? I don’t know. That will be a good question to find out at the end of the spring, where we feel like we are. One thing you worry about in the spring, that hinders you there, is injuries. Sometimes you don’t know exactly who you’ve got.”

Unfortunately for the Heels, they know who they don’t have anymore -- Cooper and Bernard.