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Landon Turner has North Carolina feeling good

"Landon [Turner] is the nicest guy you'll ever meet off the field, but when you put him on the field, it's like you killed his dog." AP Photo/Gerry Broome

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Landon Turner has answered about 10 minutes of questions after practice when a reporter shyly interjects. She's working on an off-beat piece, she admits, so she cautions him in advance.

"This is kind of a strange question," she says.

Turner's smile grows wide and his eyes light up.

"That," he says, "is a good start."

Turner loves talking to people, and the quirkier the conversation the better. He's 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds and he sports an unkempt beard, but it's the smile that you notice. He's always smiling.

What's not to smile about, after all? Turner's Tar Heels are 5-1, in prime shape to make a run in the ACC Coastal. His offensive line is proving to be one of the most effective in the nation. His NFL future looks bright, with Mel Kiper ranking Turner as the nation's No. 4 offensive guard.

But what usually has Turner smiling is good company.

"I like people," Turner said. "I think it's more I gravitate to people than they gravitate to me."

This dynamic is debatable.

At an early age, Turner was painfully shy, his mother, Dawn Womack, said. He'd hide behind her legs in public situations, and when she'd force him to introduce himself to new people, he'd moan and flop to the ground.

Slowly but surely, however, Turner came out of his shell, and by his senior year in high school in Harrisonburg, Virginia, that smile was ubiquitous.

"I did get best smile," he said. "That was my senior superlative in high school. Both my mother and father are very extroverted people. Always happy. There's not enough time in life to frown."

And people are drawn to that optimism, even if Turner believes it's the other way around.

When North Carolina wrapped up a frustrating 6-7 season last year, the team needed a fresh start. Coach Larry Fedora called a team meeting, had each of his players write their complaints on a black board, then erase them -- both literally and figuratively. To turn the page, however, he needed new leadership to step forward.

At the head of the class was Turner.

"He's had a large role in just getting the offense and defense to gel, getting everybody on the same page, getting us closer as teammates," line mate Caleb Peterson said.

This is a big change from a year ago, when quarterback Marquise Williams said the offense and defense often simply didn't like each other. Now there's a bond throughout the roster, and Turner has been the relationship builder.

"Landon is a tremendous leader," Fedora said. "And what I've got to give Landon credit to is, he's expanded that role to the team."

Which isn't to say he's ignored his teammates in the trenches. UNC's line has the fifth-lowest rate of pressure allowed on non-blitz plays in the Power 5. It's tied for the ACC lead in lowest rate of runs going for a loss or no gain. Only Arizona and Oregon have managed more yards per rush before contact.

It's a group that functions well together, and that, again, is a function of Turner's ability to galvanize the people around him.

Williams said it's all about juice.

"Juice means we've got to get the juice, get the day going," Williams said. "If guys aren't happy or excited to come out to practice, Landon is always saying ‘juice.'"

What's perhaps as striking as that ever-present juice, however, is watching it turn from unbridled enthusiasm to unfettered ferocity.

Put the nicest guy in Chapel Hill against a defensive tackle and he's as mean as they come. At a banquet for the football team after his eighth-grade season, his coach described Turner's personality perfectly.

"Landon is the nicest guy you'll ever meet off the field," the coach said, "but when you put him on the field, it's like you killed his dog."

Fedora has seen that transition, too.

"You get him on the field, he doesn't smile," Fedora said. "He's a totally different person."

After last season ended, Turner wasn't smiling. The team didn't gel, and the results were bad. He thought he might be ready to move on to the NFL.

He thought about it, prayed about it, and in the end, he decided the missing piece for North Carolina was his leadership, his ability to flip that switch between fearsome football machine and gregarious team builder. The balance he's always had is exactly what the Tar Heels had been missing.

Turner shrugs off these platitudes with a smile and a laugh.

"Someone had to do it, I guess," he said. "Football requires a lot of things you don't want to do. It's important for people to be positive. We've got to feed off each other."

And Turner does feed off his teammates. He loves being around people.

But make no mistake, this Tar Heels team is feeding off him, too. There are other leaders in the locker room, but there's no one like Turner. He's perfect for the job.

"If somebody's not feeling good, he'll make you feel good," Williams said. "That's how much juice he gives you."