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Can the North Carolina defense carry a heavier load in 2017? Part II: Personnel

Can the on-field talent push the Carolina D back to respectability?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

We talked about philosophy in Part I of the breakdown of Carolina’s 2017 defense. Today, let’s talk about the guys who will be tasked with offsetting a major offensive overhaul.

As with that post, context is important. Remember, if you will, the 2014 defense. Tim Scott, Norkeithus Otis, and Travis Hughes were the headliners on an abjectly terrible defense. Depth was lacking, positional fit (Malik Simmons at 6’, 185 is not your prototypical ‘Ram’) was nonexistent, and morale was exponentially worse as the season wore on. Part I underscored these failures, this represents an optimistic outlook on the D three years later because the personnel is just...better.

Is It Talent, Experience, or Both?

Carolina has some of each, for the first time in ages. While the talent still isn’t quite where it needs to be (the old Jimmies and Joes vs. X’s and O’s philosophy), you can point to guys at all three levels of the defense who have outperformed their recruiting rankings and return in 2017.

Beef Up Front

Up front, the line loses Nazair Jones and DE Mikey Bart, but returns senior ends Dajaun Drennon and Tyler Powell. Drennon and Powell are notable because they combined for just 36 tackles (four for loss) in parts of 16 combined games due to injury.

(This is where it gets fun) EVERYONE ELSE WHO CONTRIBUTED WAS AN UNDERCLASSMAN! We haven’t seen this kind of depth in the trenches since 2009. Tackles Jeremiah ‘Fat Melo’ Clarke, Aaron Crawford, Marlon Dunlap, and Jalen Dalton all showed they could play at a high level. The loss of rising junior Robert Dinkins, who is no longer with the program, won’t be an issue unless all of the aforementioned tackles are abducted from this planet.

If the tackles can engage blockers, the ends in this defense are free to wreak havoc— especially playing for Papuchis, who allows his ends to do just that. A healthy Drennon would be huge, but junior Malik Carney took advantage of his first extensive playing time as he led the team with 5.5 sacks. Redshirt freshman Tomon Fox looked like the missing explosive edge rusher the defense needed until he was sidelined after sustaining an injury in practice after the Illinois game. Sophomore Jason Strowbridge showed versatility and an ability to hold up against the run. Freshmen Jake Lawler, Xach Gill, and Jordon Riley represent the most talented group of defensive linemen Carolina has signed under Fedora— and they’re going to have a tough time getting on the field.

Ironically, Carney, Fox and Lawler are exactly what former DC Vic Koenning needed— fast, hybrid DE/LBs to create havoc off the edge. Now that they’re playing under Coach Papuchis, they should represent an edge rush Carolina has sorely lacked this whole decade.

More D-Line Help Means the Linebackers Can Shine

If the defensive line can take the leap, a still relatively ‘meh’ (outside of Andre Smith, who is awesome) group of linebackers actually stays clean and can make plays. The breakthrough potential of Cayson Collins is still readily apparent, Cole Holcomb led the team in tackles last year, and Dominique Ross, Ayden Bonilla Jonathan Smith, and Tyrone Hopper look the part of the modern-day linebacker and will, at worst, provide situational help.

I don’t intend to badmouth any of the linebackers from the Fedora era, but the six guys mentioned above are a stark departure from the mold that have populated the field this decade. All possess the ability to cover the modern tight end, and all have shown the ability to stop opposing ball carriers without being pushed five yards down the field.

Ross is my breakout guy for the 2017 season. For whatever reason, Cayson Collins has not been consistent enough to earn the coaching staff’s trust, but Ross made an impact almost without fail when he was on the field. Jonathan Smith’s season was cut short due to injury, but the Laurinburg product could also force his way onto the field and allow Andre Smith to play the SAM. Either way, the level of talent and athleticism trumps any we’ve seen since Bruce Carter, Quan Sturdivant, and Kevin Reddick patrolled the flats at Kenan Stadium.

Can the Secondary Hold Up?

Its funny how strengths become weaknesses, and weaknesses become strengths. The back end of Carolina’s defense is a question mark due to the lack of proven cover corners outside of the awesome M.J. Stewart.

Safety, like the entire front seven, should be in good hands. Senior Donnie Miles assumes a leadership role, and his head-busting ability adds another line of defense against the run-heavy offenses of Pitt, Miami, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State.

Learning under Miles is another...Myles. Dorn, that is. Twitter hoaxes aside, this dude is the truth.

As he took on more responsibility in the second half of the season, Dorn proved wise beyond his years in the secondary— he shows great potential as a ballhawk who (like his namesake, Donnie) loves to hit.

At corner, I’ve professed my man crush on M.J. Stewart already. He’s going to lock down half of the field and force opposing offenses to beat the Heels underneath (which, unfortunately, kinda worked last year). Without Des Lawrence on the other side, Patrice Rene needs to make the leap, or we’ve found our weak spot. Corey Bell was more or less overmatched as the third corner once he replaced an overmatched Rene around midseason. Freshmen Tre Shaw and C.J. Cotman may have to grow up fast.

And...that’s the rub. While the front seven boasts the best combination of depth, talent, and experience its had in years, the secondary could go from v good (as we say in 2017) to v bad in a hurry. Between K.J. Sails, Myles Wolfolk, J.K. Britt, D.J. Ford, and all the rest of the two-initial-named guys, nobody has shown the wherewithal to take the leap into contributing ACC player. The two-deep in the secondary will be the first position battle I draw my eyes to when fall camp opens.

On Balance

Doing a deep dive into Carolina’s defense is not a sexy activity. We’ve suffered through Clemson, Baylor, and even allowing Georgia’s (contextually) inept offense to run roughshod over our Heels. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I swear. I can point to Bill Connolly’s numbers (and I’m sure I will, at some point) and demonstrate that this year’s defense will take a major step forward due to talent and experience. Depth, while a potential question mark in the secondary, actually allows Carolina to field competent players throughout the two-deep.

Given the on-field overhaul on offense, and the coaching overhaul on defense, Carolina’s 2017 football team is going to have a new look. A more talented, more aggressive, more experienced defense is going to ensure that the results at least maintain 2015-16’s status quo.