Sports

UNC quarterback Sam Howell’s Heisman campaign runs through his offensive line


In an 8-part series, the News & Observer and Herald Sun will be examining UNC’s football depth chart, position by position, as the season opener on Sept. 3 in Blacksburg, Virginia, draws near.

It’s okay that North Carolina isn’t conducting a mass marketing Heisman Trophy plan for quarterback Sam Howell. The Tar Heels offensive line has plans to campaign for him.

They actively talk about wanting to play their best so that Howell can play his. And if Howell is at his best, that’s all they believe it will take to help him earn college football’s ultimate individual award.

“He’s a special QB, he’s been here three years in this program now and everyone sees what he can do,” right tackle Jordan Tucker said. “So if we take that extra step to get stronger, faster, smarter and talk to each other more, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t win a Heisman (Trophy) and we can’t win a Joe Moore (Award for outstanding lineman.)“

The Heels’ offensive line helped pave the way for two 1,000-yard rushers last season. Yet as good as running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter were, the offensive line didn’t believe they shared any credit for the duo’s record-setting season.

Left guard Joshua Ezeudu, who is recognized as the most versatile of the Heels’ lineman, said they’ll be blocking with a huge chip on their collective shoulders.

“We all as a whole feel like we should be the best position group on the field the whole year,” Ezeudu said. “We had everyone come back. And we also have some young guys too that really know how to come in and do everything else just like the older guys.”

Carolina is feeling very optimistic about its offensive line this season. They returned all five starters from last season — although center Brian Anderson has been hampered by injury and may not start the season opener at Virginia Tech next week.

More importantly, UNC coach Mack Brown believes they’ve developed enough backups to where the rotation will be 10 linemen. The benchmark for Brown to be comfortable with his linemen is a rotation of eight, 10 is on a championship level.

Brown never felt like he reached a consistent eight linemen last season, but UNC offensive line coach Stacy Searels says the Heels have a true two-deep roster on the line this season. Searels has confidence in his reserves to the point that he’s used several of them with the first team in practice.

“One of our goals going into fall camp is to have a reliable two deep, no drop off,” Searels said. “Our second unit, white unit, has been more reliable. More guys are understanding the offense, understanding technique, understanding the standard of play. So I do think we’ll be able to play more guys.”

One case is at center where Quiron Johnson could start in place of last year’s starter Brian Anderson, who missed part of fall camp with an injury before he resumed doing drills. Anderson’s status for the opener is still to be determined, but Searels doesn’t consider Johnson a fill-in.

Regardless who is in the game for the Heels, the goal remains the same in regards to Howell. Keep him standing. Last season, Carolina allowed 34 sacks, which ranked 13th in the ACC. Only Duke (37) and Syracuse (38) allowed more.

Howell would be the first to take the blame for a portion of those sacks, noting his tendency to hold on to the ball too long. But Tucker said it shouldn’t come down to that.

“We’re trying to keep the goal of 20 (sacks) or less this season, but in my opinion, Sam shouldn’t be touched,” Tucker said. “We have the best QB in America in football, like Sam should not be touched.”

The line will continue to operate in anonymity, but if they let Howell take a lot of hits, see what happens. They’d get unwanted attention if that is the case. But left tackle Asim Richards, who has the added responsibility of protecting Howell’s blind side, said he didn’t view his assignment as “pressure.”

“We won’t have that much pressure on us because we know what we can do, honestly,” Richards said. “You can say it’s pressure, but I don’t really feel it as much and I know the team don’t really feel it as much either. We’re just going to play. And I think we’re gonna have a really good year for everybody, and we’re going to get Sam that Heisman.”

Projected UNC offensive line depth chart

Left tackle

STARTER

Asim Richards (JR)

6-4

325

RESERVE

Cayden Baker (SO)

6-5

305

Eli Sutton (FR)

6-7

305

Left guard

STARTER

Josh Ezeudu (JR)

6-4

320

RESERVE

Ed Montilus (JR)

6-3

315

Malik McGowan (FR)

6-3

340

Center

STARTER

Quiron Johnson (GR)

6-1

315

RESERVE

Brian Anderson (GR)*

6-2

305

Chance Carroll (FR)

6-2

300

Right guard

STARTER

Marcus McKethan (SR)

6-6

335

RESERVE

Jonathan Adorno (SO)

6-4

305

Wyatt Tunall (SO)

6-5

305

Right tackle

STARTER

Jordan Tucker (SR)

6-6

340

RESERVE

William Barnes (JR)

6-3

325

Diego Pounds (FR)

6-6

330

*-injured/status pending

Previous UNC preview installments

Running backs

UNC freshman Caleb Hood has been a pleasant surprise in the Tar Heels’ backfield

Defensive line

Here’s how the UNC Tar Heels’ defensive line went ‘tired’ to ‘wired,’ almost overnight

Linebackers

UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel is a real ‘problem solver’ for the Tar Heels’ defense

Defensive backs

UNC football’s defensive backfield: From revolving door to position of strength. Here’s how

Wide receivers

Here’s why UNC’s receivers are reminding Mack Brown of the best receiving season ever

Special teams

Mack Brown wants UNC to win a game on special teams. Here’s one way he aims to do it

Other Triangle ACC previews

Offensive line

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NC State football’s offensive depth is buoyed by a converted basketball player

Running backs

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‘We’re talented there’: Duke running back Mataeo Durant is important, but he has help

Defensive line

How NC State defensive line transfer Corey Durden solidifies the Wolfpack’s depth chart

How Duke defensive lineman Christian Rorie worked his way back to the Blue Devils

Linebackers

Are the NC State Wolfpack linebackers the best in the ACC? Some would say they are

Duke football linebackers will benefit from an experienced, productive Shaka Heyward

Defensive backs

NC State’s secondary might be its deepest position on the football field. Here’s why

The Duke Blue Devils defensive backs expect to be a team strength again. Here’s how

Special teams

Punter Trenton Gill brings the ‘boom’ for NC State on special teams this season

How many wins can the Duke football special teams provide? They have a number for that

Wide receivers

The NC State Wolfpack’s wide receiver room is crowded — and that’s a good thing

Jake Bobo leads group of Duke receivers hoping to flip the Blue Devils’ fortunes. Can they?

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