Carolina’s defense has been the topic most discussed when talking about the Tar Heel football program over the last two years. The hopes of a Gene Chizik led revival have given the Tar Heel faithful hopes of a day when Carolina football is nationally relevant. Likewise, national media pundits have been provided with a reason to think that UNC can be more than the ‘sleeping giant’ they’ve commonly depicted. A rebuild is rarely completed overnight, that’s where the importance of leadership and buying into the new system and culture introduced comes into play. Sophomore linebacker Andre Smith and redshirt junior Nazair Jones have displayed the type of leadership that should lay a foundation of success for the Carolina defense for years to come.
Jones has arguably been Carolina’s most talented and important defender over the past two years. The Roanoke Rapids native has flashed his stardom periodically during his Tar Heel career. Few knew of Jones’ talent prior to his pivotal interception on the road in Charlottesville in 2014. The play was one that shifted momentum on the side of the Heels in a comeback win. Jones, once again, made a phenomenal play at the line intercepting Clemson’s DeShaun Watson in the ACC Championship Game. Jones showed not only his ability to block passes at the line, but his game-changing athleticism allowing him to make the diving interception.
These two plays and other instances gave many observers of the Carolina program an idea that Jones could live up to the abilities of defensive lineman of the past heading into this season. Now, Jones may not end up as a first-round pick, but he may very well end up with All-ACC honors if his 14 tackle (3.5 for a loss), half sack rate continues. At the very least, Jones is sure to inspire the efforts of his teammates along the defensive line as they work toward national respectability.
Smith, like Jones, showed flashes toward the end of 2015 of the potential that he had to become a star in Chizik’s defense. The Jacksonville, Florida product has taken over defensive play calling responsibilities from departed mike linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. This honor is not bestowed lightly upon a player, particularly in the college football ranks. Smith has to not only displayed strong leadership throughout the team and defensive unit, but he has to have as strong of an understanding of the defense as the defensive coaching staff themselves.
Offensively, the quarterback position calls out the plays to the entire unit. If he does not relay the message and show confidence in the huddle that will negatively effect the entire unit’s ability to be successful on that play and for more to come. The same applies to Smith, and the mike or middle linebacker position, who has to ensure his guys that he knows what he’s doing and gives them the confidence that they can execute the coverage provided to them. It’s cliche to call Smith the quarterback of the UNC defense, but that’s exactly what he is and a perfect way to symbolize his importance to the unit and team.
Smith and Jones, both, shined Saturday night in Champaign in the Tar Heels win versus Illinois. Smith was in on virtually every play in his 14 tackle (one for a loss) performance that earned him ACC Linebacker of the Week honors. I don’t know when the last time a Carolina linebacker earned those honors ---I would assume that it was when Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant were roaming the defensive half of the field---but I was thoroughly impressed by Smith’s presence. Jones, himself, had seven tackles (two coming for a loss) on the night, but that barely depicts how strong of a performance he had. Jones was virtually unblockable throughout the night and disruptive on numerous plays. In college football, a defensive tackle can become a star. Remember the likes of Nick Fairley, Timmy Jernigan, Glenn Dorset and, most recently, A’Shawn Robinson, who helped lead their teams to national titles by being a force in the middle. I don’t expect Jones to do this, but it proves just how influential his position is on the entire defense.
The two, of course, cannot do it alone defensively, but I can say with confidence that if these types of showings continue heading into ACC play that the Tar Heel defense will produce near the level that Chizik expects in this stage of his rebuild. Their continued leadership and prowess will hold the key of how far this Carolina team can go this season.