CHAPEL HILL — R.J. Prince has been a fixture on the North Carolina offensive line for the past two seasons, starting the Tar Heels’ last 19 games at right guard. But if not for the impact of someone at rival NC State, he might not be playing football anywhere.
Actually, T.A. McLendon was still a rising star at Albemarle High when caught the eye of a 7-year-old Prince watching from the stands. At that point it didn’t matter where he ended up going to college.
McLendon was such a local legend after rushing for 9,004 yards and a national record 178 touchdowns with the Bulldogs while leading them to the 1A state championship in 2002, that Prince and others like him couldn’t wait to go sign up for peewee football and begin careers of their own.
“In ’02, Friday night football games, he was electric,” Prince said. “When he did his thing, it inspired me and all my classmates. That’s why we came out and started playing football.”
Because of his size — he’s currently 6-foot-6, 320-pounds — there was little chance of Prince literally following in McLendon’s footsteps as a running back. So he concentrated his efforts on the next best thing, using his immense physical presence to open up holes for running backs to run through.
Though it took him a redshirt year and two more seasons for him to grow into that role as a starter at UNC, Prince has become one of the most reliable members of a line that has been riddled with injuries.
Even though the Stanly County native hadn’t given up a sack this season before Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech, his greatest satisfaction still comes from seeing the numbers on the back of a runner’s jersey as he sprints downfield through a hole he opened.
One such instance happened recently against Virginia, when Prince’s block sprung freshman Michael Carter for a 56-yard run that led to the Tar Heels’ first touchdown of the game.
“Seeing that happen is a great motivator and it keeps on snowballing for everybody else on the O-line,” Prince said. “If we keep our blocks and maintain our blocks, a hole will open up and there he goes, screaming down the sideline.”
According to offensive coordinator and line coach Chris Kapilovic, the turning point in Prince’s career came during spring practice following his redshirt sophomore season when he was moved from tackle to guard.
And he’s only gotten better with experience.
“We had to move him inside, which was an adjustment. But he’s done a much better job this year, not only mentally but physically,” Kapilovic said. “Last year you saw a lot of penalties from him and that doesn’t happen as much now. He’s really improved. He’s done a nice job.”
Prince has progressed to the point that he can legitimately think about a career in professional football once his eligibility at UNC is done at the end of the season.
Just in case that doesn’t work out for him, he already has a Plan B in mind.
“I’ve been watching wrestling since I was about 3,” Prince said. “I love it to death.”
If that happens, Prince said he’d prefer to play the role of bad guy. For now, though, he’s trying to be a hero by helping the Tar Heels dig themselves out of the disappointing 1-7 start they’ve experienced.
“We watch the film and see the mistakes we’re making. That’s the reason we’re losing,” Prince said. “If we hone in on the mistakes and focus, we can still win some games and be successful.”