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During the most unstable four seasons arguably in the history of North Carolina's football program from 2010 to 2013, the Tar Heels did have one constant in left tackle James Hurst.
Hurst made his way into the starting lineup by his second game for UNC and never looked back, serving as the key blind side blocker for quarterbacks T.J. Yates, Bryn Renner, and Marquise Williams as North Carolina earned three bowl berths, won the Music City Bowl in 2010 and Belk Bowl in 2013 and earned a share of the ACC Coastal Division regular season title in 2012.
But with Hurst gone now, UNC is looking to find an ample replacement for the 2014 season between three players---third-year sophomore John Ferranto, redshirt freshman R.J. Prince, and true freshman January enrollee Bentley Spain.
"We've got three guys. Ferranto, Prince, and Bentley (at left tackle)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora to Tar Heel Illustrated. "Bentley has got a class on Wednesdays, so he's not out here on Wednesdays. And so he's getting two days a week, and on top of that he's got a pec strain. So we're not seeing a whole lot from him. He's got a pectoral strain right now that's keeping him out of a lot of reps. He knows what to do, but (he's not) doing it live for those reps he's missing out on."
"Prince and Ferranto are battling it out right now," Fedora continued.
"It's good, every day," added Ferranto about the competition at left tackle. "I think we're three guys who like competition. We like to work. So it's good every day We're pushing each other to get better to hopefully establish ourselves a good left side over there."
So far through the first month of spring football leading up to Saturday's Spring Game in Kenan Stadium, it appears Ferranto has held off his younger challengers and set himself up to be the projected starter at left tackle for UNC heading into the summer.
Certainly it hasn't always been easy, as the Tar Heels are also replacing Russell Bodine at center and are missing left guard Caleb Peterson this spring as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
So even with the returning presence of 2013 starters Landon Turner at right guard and Jon Heck at right tackle, this spring has been very much a slow learning and growing process for Ferranto and the rest of the UNC offensive linemen.
"It's been going tough. The offensive line, we're trying to get it together. We're not happy with where we're at right now, but everybody is working hard. So we're working towards our goal to get better. But right now there's a lot of room for improvement, and we've got to get excited about getting better," he said.
Naturally Ferranto, after a redshirt season in 2012 and sparse mop-up action as a redshirt freshman in 2013, is eager for this open opportunity to win a starting job, and he's taking each and every day as an audition for this critical role on the team.
"The times I played (last season), I think it's good," he said. "Next time I go out I know what it's like. I won't have those first-time jitters. I mean, I'm going to get that every game, but I feel like the couple of snaps I did get last year will help me going forward."
He credits Hurst for helping him tremendously over two seasons as one of his primary backups.
"I'm going to do everything that I can (to win the starting job). Get my weight up, get stronger, try to work on technique," he said. "As far as taking over for James, he's been a great teacher to me, a great leader to me. So I'm going to try to take what he taught me, and kind of apply that to now."
Leadership is something that's a little new for Ferranto considering his limited role so far as a Tar Heel contributor. But as a third-year player and one of the older players now along the offensive line, he has more of a sense of responsibility to step up as an example to his teammates.
"I look at it, I think everybody on the offensive line kind of has their own role, and being a leader in their own way," he said. "Everybody kind of leads in their own way. So I look at it as I'm getting older. There's certain things I've got to do more, maybe start talking more. But whatever my role as a leader is going to be, I'm going to accept it and do what I have to do."
In terms of his playing abilities, Ferranto has a couple key areas of concentration that have been focuses for him over the past several weeks.
"It's got to start with my punch (in pass protection)," he said. "Keep my head out, staying loose upper body, I'm just working on that. And then run blocking, I've just got to run my feet a little more so I can get a better base."
While Ferranto is extensively familiar with Peterson, having come in as part of the same class with him back in 2012 and rooming with him as a freshman, he's gotten a chance this spring to get more familiar with Will Dancy, who has been taking the Lion's share of first-team reps at the left guard spot with Peterson out of commission.
"It's good (on the left side). Will is doing his job. He's working hard just like everybody else. I think we're getting better as a pair, us two working together. I love Caleb. He was my roommate freshman year. So I can't wait to have him back, but we're just working with what we've got right now," Ferranto said.
With so many key holes to fill up front offensively heading into the 2014 season, it's easy to understand if Fedora and offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic have a few restless nights between now and late summer, when the Tar Heels start playing games again.
For Ferranto, he says its essential that the group---no matter who's on the field at any given time---understands the need to be physical and assert themselves along the line of scrimmage.
The Tar Heels have some big-time playmakers in the offensive backfield to give the ball to, including T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood, so it's a situation where if the UNC offensive line can establish itself there's no reason to think Carolina can't put up some big numbers once again on the ground in 2014, as they did earlier in the Fedora regime when Giovani Bernard was still in college.
"I think it's really going to come down to how physical we are, establishing ourselves as a physical, tough team," Ferranto said. "Right now we've got guys, me included, who aren't playing the toughest football. So I think we need to work on toughness, be physical, and just start finishing blocks and just establish ourselves as that type of offensive line."