The last stop on our tour of the Tar Heel defense is the line. Last year's squad did half of their job pretty well, holding opposing rushers to 143 yards a gape, 4th in the ACC. That performance looks even better if you exclude the Georgia Tech team that lit Carolina up for 380 yards on the ground. UNC has yet to figure out a way to stop Paul Johnson's triple option, after all. Subtract that disastrous game and the Heels' 121 yards allowed per game would put them only second to Florida State.
No, UNC was quite good at bottling up the run, and as the line returns every major contributor save Sylvester Williams, I'd expect that to continue this season. But a good deal of UNC's success against the run came at the expense of the other primary function of the line — Carolina was lousy at attacking the quarterback. Williams had almost half of the line's 13 sacks last year, and with him gone, senior end Kareem Martin is the only returning lineman to have more than 5 tackles for a loss. Martin was the defense's representative to ACC Media Days, and has made both the Bednarik watch list and first team preseason All-ACC. Martin will freely admit he left sacks on the field last season, and he's been plaiyng the role of Jadeveon Clowney in practice, which hopefully indicates a step up in his game. He'll be joined on the line by a pair of experienced tackles, senior Tim Jackson and junior Shawn Underwood. Both were solid contributors last year, and they're backed up by Ethan Farmer and Justin Thomason, who both got some good playing time last season.
That leaves the Bandit position, a key role in the 4-2-5 scheme where the player is basically a hybrid end and outside linebacker. Last season it was Dion Guy in the role, and while he was decent he was rarely making plays in the backfield. With Guy gone that position is open for a younger player to step up, but the Heels have already lost for the year one contender, Shakeel Rashad, to injury in the preseason. (It;s a shame too, as "Bandit Shakeel Rashad" was a phrase I was really looking forward to typing this season. It's like something out of a pulp novel. "Catch Bandit Shakeel Rashad and Doc Savage in The Treasure of the Ur-Hittites!" But I digress.)
Without Rashad, the leading contender for the role remains Norkeithus Otis, who had 2.5 tackles and 1 sack in ten games last season. Outside of him there's just redshirt freshman Junior Gnonkonde. Andrew Carter has said Otis had a strong preseason, but he's got a tough role to fill, and teams are going to take advantage of an lapses he offers.
Which bring us to the last thing plaguing the defense — penalties. The Heels committed a conference-high 90 infractions last season, costing them an average of 64 yards a game. There were a multitude of tackles after the whistle and movement before it. Some of it sprang from not knowing the defense well, and some from frustration when things didn't go their way. This is a more experienced squad however, and they can't make these mistakes. This team has the potential and conditioning to be a top-tier defense in the conference, but they've got to master a system that's eluded them, play past injuries, and cut down on the stupid mistakes. Otherwsie, we're looking at another year of shootouts from the middle of the Coastal Division.
The season starts quickly with South Carolina and Georgia Tech, so the defense isn't going to get the slow learning curve they could use. It's into the fire, and I hope the Heels have all of the pieces on this side of the ball.