Crowley taking reigns at center
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UNC's football coaches knew all along they were losing four-year starter James Hurst at the left tackle position after the 2013 season, as Hurst, who arrived at North Carolina in 2010, finished out his playing eligibility as a Tar Heel last fall.
But what offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic and the rest of the Tar Heels weren't immediately prepared for was the departure of two-year starting center Russell Bodine, though he still had a season of collegiate eligibility in 2014 had he chosen to stay in college.
But having spent four years at UNC and in position to graduate in a year where centers are at a premium in the NFL Draft, Bodine felt it was time to make his move to the pros.
"I was excited (for Bodine)," said sophomore Lucas Crowley, who now stands in line to replace Bodine as UNC's center. "Obviously he's a good friend of mine and mentor. He helped me through a lot last year. I was kind of hesitant about that part, because I'm not going to have him here to help me out when I have questions and stuff. But I'm glad for him and excited for him, and hope to see him do well (in the pros)."
UNC fans can argue all offseason about whether or not Bodine's departure was good or bad for the 2014 Tar Heels, but there's certainly no arguing the fact that it was a good thing for Crowley, who now finds himself in position to become a starter for North Carolina heading into his sophomore year.
Crowley saw action last fall as a true freshman, including making a few starts late in the season as UNC embarked on six victories out of seven games to finish 2013.
And even though he hasn't been on the UNC campus for a full year yet, Crowley now finds himself in a position to rapidly ascend into leader and veteran status along the Tar Heel offensive front.
"It was fast (my ascension up the depth chart)," Crowley told Tar Heel Illustrated in a recent interview. "But with the help of the seniors last year, and then Landon (Turner) helping out this year. I mean, we have a young O-line this year, so that helps too, because we're all learning together and coming up together. So it's just one of those things."
Crowley first played last fall in UNC's rivalry victory over N.C. State in Raleigh, and by the time the Tar Heels traveled to Pittsburgh in mid-November he was in the starting lineup.
It's a somewhat rare thing for true freshmen offensive linemen to make their way onto the field as first-year players---and even rarer still to start---but Crowley broke the mold with his wiser-than-his-years maturity, as well as his advanced strength and knowledge of the UNC offensive schemes.
"It was awesome (getting to play last fall)," Crowley replied. "I was excited whenever the coaches told me. I knew in the beginning of the year they were talking about redshirting. It's usual for offensive linemen. I was okay with that, but when they told me I was going to get the chance to play I was excited, and took advantage of the opportunity."
"I would say probably the Pitt game (is when things really clicked for me on the field), because that was the first game I got to start," the rising sophomore center continued.
"The other games---the first game I played in was (N.C.) State. That was a big game, a big rivalry game. So it was a big opportunity there, but I think for me it was definitely the Pitt game, because it was the first start, so it gave me the experience of playing a whole game and getting used to tempo and stuff like that."
This spring has clearly been an adjustment for Crowley stepping up to the top chair at center and everything that goes along with it.
He's expected to know the defensive fronts well enough to call them out to his offensive line teammates.
He's also expected to have a thorough enough understanding of the UNC offense to know everything that's going to happen on any given play before the ball is snapped.
It's a challenging, demanding situation playing center at the collegiate level, and it defeats the logic of anyone who suggests that only dumb young men play up front.
Quite the contrary, it takes a tremendous combination of field smarts and memorization, along with football-specific traits such as strength and athleticism, to effectively play center.
And in Crowley, the Tar Heels appear to have the total package. All he needs is some additional seasoning to get himself ready.
"Just (knowing the) plays (is my biggest focus this spring)," Crowley told us.
"I knew my plays (last fall), but I want to get them down to where I have no questions. Know the (defensive) front. If I know each play---you can run one play six different ways---so know each play. And if they (the defensive linemen) move, not to panic and to calm myself down, stuff like that."
Crowley showed last fall he's more than a serviceable backup. He's ready to start.
And while he may not have a ton of experience, it's fortunate that UNC was able to get him some action last fall so the 2014 season won't be a completely new experience for him.
"It helps (that Crowley has played) but he doesn't have enough experience," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. "He's still got a long way to go, you know. We've got him and Arien Smith right now at that position, so we're very thin right now and those guys have got a lot of work to do."
Crowley is currently UNC's only scholarship center, though that figures to change by the time the Tar Heels begin training camp in August.
But he's confident in Smith, his primary backup.
A junior walk-on, Smith has shown some flashes this spring as the No. 2 center.
"I have Arien behind me, and Arien has been here a while," Crowley replied. "I mean, he's solid as can be, you know. So I'm not real worried about him. I just push through it, don't worry about it. Any dings, just go to the trainers to help me out. You know, I've just got to push through it."
Crowley is one of three players rotating into the starting lineup for the UNC offensive line this spring---the others are third-year sophomore left tackle John Ferranto and junior left guard Will Dancy, who is playing in place of the injured Caleb Peterson.
"It's been going good. We're trying to come together as an O-line," Crowley said. "A lot of us are new, and don't have a lot of experience under our belt. We've got a couple veterans. Landon played all year last year and played the year before that, and Jon (Heck) played all last year. So everybody is trying to get it together and be one solid unit."
This spring has been a good experience for Crowley going up against UNC's collection of veteran defensive linemen---a group that includes three seniors at defensive tackle (Devonte Brown, Shawn Underwood, and Ethan Farmer), as well as a junior (Justin Thomason) at the 'three technique.'
"It hasn't been too bad (competing with the UNC defensive linemen), because I got to go against them a lot last year because I was working in with the 'ones.' It helps a lot with experience, because they've been here a while," Crowley replied. "You know, right now we're doing pretty good. Obviously there's a lot of things we can work on. But I think we're starting to come together. Each practice we're getting better. Each scrimmage we're getting better. So hopefully it will come together soon."
Crowley came to Chapel Hill a little undersized from where the coaches would like him to be, and before the 2014 season begins, they're hopeful he can gain some additional bulk to help take on those opposing interior defensive linemen.
"I was 285 during the season last year, and they (the UNC coaches) want to get me up to about 295 by fall camp and in-between 295 and 300 during the season," Crowley said.