North Carolina center Cam Holland was forced into heavy action last year following an injury to senior Lowell Dyer, who has since left the program to create an open starting position for the Tar Heels this spring.
"Last season after the first game Lowell Dyer got injured. Two days before the (Connecticut) game I was told that I would be starting, so I was kind of thrust into that position," said Holland, a fourth-year junior.
Having only played sparsely in two games prior to his start against the Huskies last September, Holland predictably had some growing pains in his new role---and those issues had a direct impact on the offense's inability to move the ball in losses against Georgia Tech and Virginia.
"I struggled a little bit at first. It's hard just going from not playing to all of a sudden being the starting center, and not only having to conduct myself but conducting everybody around me," he said.
"Playing center is an extremely cerebral job," he added. "It kind of surprised me when I first got here how much thinking and knowledge is involved in playing center."
The fortunate thing was that Holland---one of the strongest players on the entire UNC roster---did get better as the season went on.
He's also one of several Tar Heel players to have used last season's experiences to springboard into a solid spring season this year.
"As the season went on I learned and I grew, and that experience helped me so much for this spring," Holland said. "I've gotten into the offense extremely well and I've gotten that experience leading people, and it's been very helpful this spring."
"One of the things that very interesting is Cam Holland, who started at center last year an awful lot of the time when Lowell Dyer was injured, he's having by far and away his best spring practice that he's ever had," said UNC head coach Butch Davis.
While the Tar Heel coaches have moved one of the team's best interior linemen in Jonathan Cooper from left guard to center this spring to potentially snag the starting job, Holland continues to hold his own.
In fact, the UNC coaches say that it's not a done deal by any means that Cooper will win the job away from Holland.
"The confidence that he (Holland) gained by the trust that we put in him to go out there and start those games has carried over into the spring, and he's putting some heat on Jonathan Cooper," Davis said.
"I think what we're going to try to do honestly is we're going to try to find out where are we best with those guys," said offensive line coach Sam Pittman. "Are we best with Cooper at center? Holland at center? What we did this spring, we try to put our guys in position to where we could answer all those questions at the end of spring."
"Our competition has been driving us both. Jon Cooper, he's an incredible lineman and an incredible athlete," Holland said. "Me and Cooper every day, we both bring our hard hats and go to work and just try to become the best players we can, and we do push each other. And I think that's helped us both a lot."
"Before I played center and guard, and we were always competing with each other in the weight room and pushing each other---we were always trying to out-do each other---and it helped us come a long way athletically. And now it's the same way on the field," Holland added.
Davis suggested that Holland might even be able to push Cooper back to the left guard position depending on certain circumstances.
"If he (Holland) becomes the solidified guy, maybe we might be able to go in the opposite direction---maybe we can put Cooper back at guard," he said.
The great thing from a big picture standpoint is that the Tar Heels now have two talented, experienced veterans at one of the most critical offensive positions on the football field, and no matter who actually wins the starting job between now and September, the team should be in pretty good shape in this particular area.
"Both of those kids (Cooper and Holland) are really, really smart. They're smart in the classroom academically. They're smart football intelligence-wise. It's a good problem to know that you've got two really good offensive centers," said Davis.
"It's almost like an insurance policy, but it feels good that you know that we won't have to have a drop-off," said Cooper. "We have talent with the ones, twos---either way you're fine with it."
"The thing about center is that you think you know it, but then once you're out there on the line you have to think a lot quicker than you ever did, and being able to do that, that's something that takes practice," Holland added. "I think me and Jon Cooper have the ability to do that and do it well."
As he continues to develop this offseason, Holland says his biggest area of growth is becoming more familiar with the offense and getting into his playbook. He's also focusing on his explosiveness out of the snap.
"Individually, I just felt like I personally needed to know the offense better---and a lot better---than I knew it last year," he said. "And also you have to work on stuff like getting quicker off the ball and certain things that I felt would help me."
"Me and the coaches have worked really hard to take those weaknesses and make those become strong points," he added.
Along with developing his own set of skills, Holland says he's been trying to help bring along Carolina's newcomers along the offensive line as well.
"Last season we were kind of shy of offensive linemen, but this spring we have a lot of bodies," he said. "We have a lot of new guys, a lot of freshmen, but the older guys have gotten together and are working with them and helping them out."
"The freshmen that have come in (for the spring semester) have come an extremely long way," Holland added. "I'm looking forward to getting better as a group, helping each other, and becoming better."
Stronger, healthier, and smarter than ever before, Holland is out to make sure that he doesn't get lost in the shuffle along the Tar Heel offensive front this spring---and given the praise he's gotten from the coaches, it appears he's doing a good job of competing.
"I feel great. I feel confident and I've been working extremely hard this spring to get back on the field," he said.