The Tar Heel football injury report ahead of this weekend’s game against Duke dropped like an anvil Thursday evening. The news wasn’t pretty.
Particularly hit hard was the offensive line. On a team with a first-year starting quarterback (no matter who lines up behind center) and a young pair of tailbacks, the experience up front has been crucial.
But with Bentley Spain and Cam Dillard questionable, right guard R.J. Prince is the only healthy Tar Heel who was a regular starter a year ago (Nick Polino started one game in 2016).
In the graphic above, a red X signifies the player is out for the year. Yellow X, out for this game. A yellow question mark, as seen on Bentley Spain and Cam Dillard, represents a player is questionable for this weekend. A green circle, here on Charlie Heck, Nick Polino, R.J. Prince and Jay-Jay McCargo, designates healthy players who have started in 2017. The white circles seen on Jonathan Trull and Mason Veal signify that they are healthy and have appeared in games. A blue circle indicates walk-ons or true freshmen with no college experience. Not pictured is Khaliel Rodgers, who walked away from football and rejoined the team late in camp but missed picture day.
And so as they begin conference play in earnest with the rivalry game against Duke, the Tar Heels are trying to find healthy bodies, let alone experienced ones.
Charlie Heck has done a nice job stepping into a more reliable role, and he probably slides over to right tackle if Spain can go. If not, Heck should be on the left side with Mason Veal moving up on the right. Jay-Jay McCargo has been solid at center with Dillard out for much of the last two games.
Trull and Rodgers are depth at guard, although they are –and no disrespect intended– a walk-on and a guy who walked away from football in camp.
The real issue is at tackle, where the Tar Heels are perhaps down to Heck and Veal. Do they take off the redshirt of Marcus McKethan or Jordan Tucker?
At receiver, Carolina has lost senior Thomas Jackson. The former walk-on became a talented threat out in space and is now one fewer pass-catcher that the young quarterback can rely on. Enter Roscoe Johnson and Dazz Newsome. Newsome in particular has shown his ability as a catch-and-run threat; Johnson has three catches for 25 yards on the year.
Perhaps the single most devastating listing on that injury report was the confirmation that Andre Smith would be out for the year. The junior has been Carolina's middle linebacker and quarterback of the defense since his freshman season. His is an energetic –if at times boastful– voice, and his playmaking abilities will be missed, particularly in this time of miscommunication (ill communication) and uncertainty on defense.
Sophomore Jonathan Smith, who himself was lost for the 2016 season early in the year, steps into that role, though you may see the Tar Heels play more nickel coverage, keeping the more experienced Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb as the linebackers on the field. Beyond that, there may be an increased role for Ayden Bonilla. Freshman linebacker Kayne Roberts was the subject of a lot of buzz in camp, though he has not appeared in a game as of yet.
The injury report is not pretty, but the Tar Heels have a game against Duke on Saturday. Either the team rallies and fights to win the game, or the Blue Devils tote the Victory Bell back to Durham for another long year.