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UNC Football Position Preview: Defensive Line

Nazair Jones departed for the NFL, but there is plenty of talent remaining for the defensive line to lead this year’s defense.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a secret that the Heels lost a significant amount of offensive talent last season. As has been written about here, here, and here, the defense will have to continue their slow, upward return to respectability. After three years of scholarship restrictions from 2012-2014, Larry Fedora’s first fully stocked recruiting classes from 2015 and 2016 will start to make their presence known.

Last season I touched on the transition the Heels made in their defensive philosophy and scheme. Admittedly, I may have been one year early in my enthusiasm, but the basic tenets remain the same. Injuries were also an important factor in keeping the D-line in constant flux.

As football continues to evolve, the old axiom that football is won in the trenches still rings true. Fortunately, compared to previous seasons, the defensive line is locked, stocked, and loaded. Heading into fall camp they are fully healthy and, with the exception of Nazair Jones and Mikey Bart, return every key contributor. This season talent, experience, and depth finally litter the defensive side of the roster. The defensive line will be the key to whatever success the Heels have this season.

Key Losses

Nazair Jones (DT)

Jones was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round. Over the course of last season he turned into a physical force on the interior. His 70 tackles were the fourth most on the team. He also led UNC with 9.5 tackles for loss (TFL).

Mikey Bart (DE)

Bart brought a blue collar work ethic to the team. Second on the roster with four sacks, he also led the team with five hurries. While those aren’t eye-popping numbers, Bart was a steady and poised presence on a defensive line that was hampered by injuries all year.

Key Returns

Defensive End

Malik Carney, 6-3, 235, JR- 47 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 13 games
Dajaun Drennon, 6-4, 245, SR – 17 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 6 games
Jason Stowbridge, 6’4, 270, SO – 12 tackles 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 9 games
Tomon Fox, 6’3, 245, RS FR – 4 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 2 games

Defensive Tackle:

Jeremiah Clarke, 6-5, 315, JR – 42 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 13 games
Jalen Dalton, 6-6, 295, JR – 27 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0 sacks, 13 games
Aaron Crawford, 6’1, 310, SO – 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 13 games

Expectations

Malik Carney is a prime candidate to truly break out. Last season, playing opposite of Bart, he finished the year with 47 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and a team-high 5.5 sacks. Those are solid numbers for a sophomore campaign. If the Heels implement a more aggressive defense, Carney will be one of the biggest benefactors. Kareem Martin was the last Tar Heel to record double-digit sacks, but Carney may be this season’s best candidate to reach that elusive milestone in his junior season.

The other side of the line is full of promise and potential, but lacks a proven track record of results. Much of that is due to injuries. Fox earned a medical redshirt last season. Drennon and Stowbridge only played a combined 15 games last year as they battled various ailments.

Until one of those three separates themselves, the coaching staff will likely use a consistent rotation early in the season. Drennon is most likely to emerge, but Fox may be the best pure pass rusher of the group. Freshmen Jake Lawler and Zach Gill will also help fortify the defensive end.

That may not seem like the most optimistic assessment, but there is value in having depth and diverse skills on the line. Especially depth that has more overall talent than UNC has had since the Butch Davis era. It’s a luxury that that Larry Fedora has not yet experienced.

The real strength of the D-line is along the interior. All three key DTs played in all 13 games last season. At first glance, Jeremiah Clarke should be the star of this trio. He served as the back-up to Jones last year and is the logical choice to be the next interior stalwart at UNC. As a full-time starter, that may happen. His size, experience, and sophomore stats mirror that of Jones’ sophomore year. The precedent has been set.

However, as a redshirt freshman, Crawford was statistically equal to Clarke. With 10 starts already under his belt as the nose tackle (different from the 3-technique position of Jones and Clarke), it should not be a surprise to anybody if Crawford emerges as North Carolina’s best defensive tackle. Regardless, an interior of Crawford, Clarke, and Dalten may finally provide the strength up front to curb UNC’s woes in stopping the run.

One Burning Question

Can the Heels continue to improve their pass rush?

This doesn’t mesh with the narrative of “Can UNC stop the run?,” but that’s easy, low-hanging fruit. Last season, UNC faced a rash of run-dominant teams (JMU, Pittsburgh), and elite RBs (Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb) that slightly skewed those numbers, especially early in the season. I’m confident that the run defense will normalize.

More frustrating was the inability to get pressure on the opposing QB on passing downs, specifically third down. UNC’s opponents converted 42.58% of their third down opportunities. In the ACC, North Carolina allowed the third most third down opportunities with 209 and allowed the second most conversions with 89.

Even when they forced passing situations, the Heels were consistently beat with quick, short, underneath passing routes that preyed on a defense that could not or did not often dial up pressure. The defensive line has to find a way to get to the QB and disrupt the timing of those short and mid-range passing routes.

From 2014-16, UNC recorded 22, 23, and 25 sacks. That has been a slow, long upward trend. While encouraging, that has to improve at a greater rate this season. More concerning is that the team could only muster 19 QB hurries last season. In 2014 and 2015 they recorded 34 and 47 hurries. The inability to get constant pressure means a QB is likely to make less mistakes. Fewer mistakes means fewer opportunities to capitalize, such as grab those elusive interceptions.

If North Carolina hopes to contend for the ACC Coastal again, all success and failure will begin and end with the defensive line’s ability to take that next step.