(A video interview with Jon Heck is at the end of this piece)
CHAPEL HILL - Perhaps no unit on a football field must work in sync more than the offensive line.
Usually the least known of the regulars, they are also among the most important, and within a team, the most counted on to perform.
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Super talented quarterbacks aren't so effective when running for their lives every time they drop back to pass. Pro capable running backs can only do so much when the holes aren't there. And gifted receivers aren't going to catch many passes when there's not enough time for their routes to materialize.
Unsung heroes when all goes well, often the blame when things derail, the offensive line is what it is: They are the protectors, the tone setters, and the foundation for an offense, and often a football team. That's no different for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The old adage that defense wins championships in sports generally still holds, but in the ever-changing landscape of college football, prolific spread offenses are beginning to change that notion. UNC's high-octane spread offense is an example of that change.
But as athletic and gifted as many high-flying teams are, they can't achieve pinball-machine scoring totals without having an offensive line they fully believe in. The coaches and skill guys must implicitly trust their offensive lines. There can't be any questions or the process likely will derail. That trust begins within the big uglies up front.
"Yeah, I think trust does come," said UNC sophomore offensive tackle Jon Heck. "You have to trust the guy next to you, you have to trust the technique the coaches are teaching us - you can't just go lunging out after a guy, you have to stay true to your technique and trust that it's going to work for you. I've got to trust my right guard is going to be there. It's important."
If a lineman doesn't trust the teammate to his right or left, he will naturally try to compensate. When that happens, he doesn't service his role to its fullest, and that's how a unit begins to break down. It almost becomes contagious in how the entire line is impacted.
Trust is built over time, and usually accompanies more veteran offensive lines than young ones. For the Tar Heels, time together isn't on their side. This is a mostly new group, and it's gone through some of the growing pains that almost always accompany a unit trying to come together.
Slowly but surely, however, the group is coming together.
"We've been through some brotherly issues in camp just from being together 15 hours a day," said junior guard Landon Turner, the elder statesman of the group. "And I think we grew from all of that time together and I think our chemistry has taken baby steps forward."
The reality for UNC is this: Its offensive line has just 27 total starts among the 12 players listed on the depth chart released Monday. Heck and Turner account for 26 of those starts, the other belongs to sophomore center Lucas Crowley.
Eight of the 12 are freshmen or sophomores, none are seniors. So the issues facing UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic isn't just inexperience, but a lack of interchangeable parts that can mask a lack of depth.
"That's the hard part," Kapilovoc said. "When they have more experience it's easy to bounce them around, but right now when you take a young guy who's just learning that guard spot and you move him to center it blows his mind. So, you're trying not to stop his progress at both positions."
Spinning heads don't soak in much, though that hasn't stopped the more veteran linemen from establishing a culture within the group that must eventually become self-sufficient. The uniqueness of the positions lends themselves to having their own ethos, if you will, and that's one way they can more quickly come together.
"We've all been holding each other accountable putting a lot of responsibility on each other in practice and off the field," Heck said. "And I think the way Coach Kap works us all and gives attention to each and every one of us that everyone is doing what they need to do to be as ready as they can be."
UNC head coach Larry Fedora says the offensive line is the toughest place for a young player to be ready to contribute. Learning to combine the physical nature of the college game with the techniques required can be a lengthy process After all, trust isn't something one simply hands to another, it's built over time.
But for these Tar Heels, they've been on more of a fast track, further entrenching that whole trust deal as each day passes. And that's a good thing.