Year 2 of Gene Chizik is expected to bring further change from a defense that performed at a historically poor rate under besieged defensive coordinator Vic Koenning in 2014. The Carolina secondary has talked this offseason about resurrecting the “Rude Boyz” persona of the 90’s, defensive units of the Mack Brown era. For that to be accomplished Carolina’s defensive line is going to have to take up the nasty nature of former defensive great Greg Ellis. The first 11 games of 2015 saw an overall turnaround for the UNC defense, as opponents rushed for 199 ypg. Unfortunately, Carolina fell apart down the stretch allowing 1,272 (424 ypg) total yards rushing yards per game in the final three---Baylor, of course, was responsible for 645 of those yards. Despite the end of 2015, Carolina has enough depth in their two-deep set to expect their best performance in years on the defensive line.
-Mikey Bart (Senior, 6’3”, 270)
Has been as solid on the Tar Heel defensive line as any. Bart, starting every game last season, lead the team in sacks, with 6.5. Being the lone senior of the unit, Bart is expected to continue to provide leadership to a group that has more than their fair share to prove nationally and across the ACC.
-Dajuan Drennon (Junior, 6’4”, 255)
The two-year starter has struggled with injuries this offseason but was a solid contributor in 2015. Drennon collected 39 tackles (five for a loss) in 11 starts last year. Drennon’s development in Chizik’s defense may have been slowed with him missing quite a bit of time this spring and fall with a foot injury. The hope is that Drennon has collected enough mental reps to pair with his experience that will ease his transition back on to the field.
-Tyler Powell (Junior, 6’4”, 290)
Possibly Carolina’s most versatile lineman, Powell has seen a lot of time at the end spot during training camp with Drennon out. Powell’s experience, 23 appearances, and production, 35 tackles over his first two seasons, should have defensive line coach Tray Scott more at ease while Drennon is sidelined. Powell taking reps on the outside will only help the coaching staff ability to move him around from the tackle and end spots when needed.
-Tomon Fox (Freshman, 6’3”, 235)
Fox comes to Chapel Hill as one of the most coveted of Fedora’s 2016 signees. Fox, a former ESPN 300 recruit, should fit in at the weak side defensive line position. Fox may be a little undersized to be a factor in stopping the run game. Where he might become a factor is situationally on third down and long as a speed rusher from the outside. What is important for Fox is to gain a grasp on Chizik’s system in hopes of being a key contributor down the stretch and in future seasons.
-Nazair Jones (Junior, 6’5”, 295)
The anchor of the defensive line has shown shades of brilliance over his first two years in Chapel Hill. Jones had a pivotal interception on the road at Virginia in 2014 to spark the comeback win in Charlottesville. Last season, on way to third team All-ACC honors, Jones cumulated 40 tackles with 4.0 being for a loss. Jones may have had his biggest moment wearing Carolina Blue in the ACC Championship game where he had six tackles and an acrobatic interception. Jones’ presence in the middle of the defensive line will be paramount to the Tar Heels’ ability to stop the run in 2016. Yes, Jones missed the Baylor game, but that would not have changed anything that happened on that day. What will change the lack of production in run defense is the mentality and leadership that he brings inside.
-Jalen Dalton (Sophomore, 6’6”, 280)
Dalton, the key signing of the 2015 class, was forced into action last season after injuries plagued the line early in the season, playing eight games and recording 11 tackles. Once rated as the top defensive end in the state of North Carolina, Dalton has put on a significant amount of weight since enrolling at UNC, allowing him to move inside to the tackle position. Dalton’s talent is undeniable. If he can stay healthy and pair well with Jones, Carolina might just have something with its two starting tackles.
-Jeremiah Clarke (Redshirt Sophomore, 6’5”, 315)
After redshirting in 2014, Clarke had an impressive redshirt freshman campaign, tallying 34 tackles and a sack. Hailing from T.C. Williams, famed in the Denzel Washington classic Remember the Titans, Clarke will look to take on the spirit of Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell. Disney movies aside, Clarke, who may not factor in as a starter, will see plenty of time as a rotational player and will play a major role in role defense with his size. Remember you just cannot replace a Gerry Bertier.
-Robert Dinkins (Redshirt Sophomore, 6’1”, 270)
The Charlotte native appeared in every game last season recording 17 tackles, including a sack and fumble recovery. Dinkins is smaller than the other tackles listed above, but presents a better jump off the line that allows him to get better pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Dinkins continuing that inside pass rushing role should improve upon his numbers from 2015.
Tackles Aaron Crawford and Marlon Dunlap, along with sophomore end Malik Carney have gained meaningful reps to this point in training camp and should play a factor in the task to turn around the Carolina defensive front. Only time will tell if this happens, but the excuse is no longer that the Tar Heels don’t have the bodies to do it.