North Carolina offensive line coach Sam Pittman is currently faced with a very challenging situation as it relates to UNC's depth in the trenches as it prepares not only for Saturday's opponent, East Carolina, but also the upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
After losing key backup offensive tackle Carl Gaskins to a training camp ACL injury and having Kevin Bryant and Aaron Stahl not return to the team this season, the Tar Heels were faced with the dilemma of two starters---center Lowell Dyer and left guard Jonathan Cooper---being out for the game this past weekend at Connecticut.
That left only starters Kyle Jolly, Mike Ingersoll, and Alan Pelc, new starting center Cam Holland, converted defensive lineman Greg Elleby, and true freshmen Brennan Williams and Travis Bond as North Carolina's healthy scholarship offensive linemen with game experience.
Plus, the collective experience of Holland, Elleby, Williams, and Bond was minimal at best---in some cases only the season opener.
For Holland, who stepped in for Dyer at center, and Elleby, who played in the place of Cooper at left guard, Saturday's game against Connecticut was the first career start for both of them.
"We have several guys who haven't played much, if any," said Pittman. "A couple of them, it (this past week's game) was their first start, but if that happens you've got to play better around them, you know."
"You have to have your key players play well, and if they don't or something of that nature, then it even magnifies the situation," he added.
Elleby, who made the switch over to the offensive line after spending his first three Tar Heel seasons as a defensive end and defensive tackle, wound up playing the entire game at left guard against the Huskies.
He now finds himself an extremely important part of the offense as a backup at both guard and tackle, and his contributions will almost certainly be needed over the next several weeks even if and when Cooper gets back to full strength.
"For him personally, I think it's been an outstanding move, because I think he was probably getting some reps, five or something a game (on defense before), and he played 73 snaps the other night," said Pittman of Elleby. "For him personally it's been a good move."
"For us as a team, certainly, that was Coach Davis to have the foresight that we might need to move some guys. Of course, that was even before some of these other things have happened, but I think it's worked out well for him. I know it has for the team," he added.
While Pittman wasn't sure if the mid-week loss of Dyer to a shoulder injury or the high-ankle sprain that Cooper suffered against The Citadel necessarily affected the offensive line's mindset going into the UConn game, he did say that he felt the unit on the field got better as the game against the Huskies went on, and the statistics would tend to agree.
Of UConn's six sacks over the course of the game, four of them came in the first half, including three by Lindsey Witten alone. The Tar Heels allowed just two second half sacks.
In addition, the Tar Heels found considerably more success moving the football later in the game, putting together a pair of vital scoring drives before getting the game-winning safety.
"I don't know if it affects you (when) 'Okay, Cooper's not going to play and Lowell Dyer is not going to play,' after Wednesday when he's practiced all week," said Pittman. "I don't know if it's more physical or just mental. I don't know what the effect was. I know we played a good football team. We got better as the game went on. I think the second half we played a lot better than we played in the first half."
UNC officials confirmed on Wednesday that Dyer will be out for a minimum of three to four weeks, and while the Tar Heels are optimistic that Cooper will be able to play Saturday against the Pirates, there's likely going to be some strong consideration in practice over the next couple of days moving some guys over to the offensive line to give the unit some essential depth.
"I think that (moving guys from defense to offense) is up to Coach Davis, and obviously we have several D-linemen," Pittman said. "If that move was necessary we'd make it, and we'd teach him as fast as we possibly can. Obviously if it's an older guy he'll learn a little faster because he's more football savvy and aware."
"It will be a situation where if we need it, we'll probably try to move a guy or two just in case something else happens to us," Pittman added.