Coming off of the ACC Kickoff event, it was clear that the position that was the least concerning
on defense was the defensive line. Upperclassmen Malik Carney, Aaron Crawford, and Jalen Dalton collectively racked up 11.5 sacks during last year’s tumultuous season. Redshirt sophomore Tomon Fox should also be a factor, as he is coming off of a four-sack season and is poised to have a breakout year in 2018. There’s not much of a dropoff when looking behind these players, and so it seemed like there wasn’t a great deal to worry about with this group. That’s when the shoe situation happened.
Without going into a great amount of detail, as many of you have heard by now anyway, UNC self-reported an issue with a number of their players selling shoes that were given to them by the university. Carney and Fox will both miss four games apiece, with Carney expected to miss time first, and then Fox will miss the four games that follow. This undoubtedly is a setback that Larry Fedora didn’t need, but nevertheless, it is a setback that Larry Fedora has to navigate until his line is at full strength. Thankfully this is one of UNC’s deepest positions, and so let’s go ahead and dive into the complete picture for this year’s defensive line.
The only player that the Heels will be missing from the defensive line this year is Dajaun Drennon, who finished his senior season with 33 total tackles, with 4 of those tackles being for a loss. He also recorded a team-high nine quarterback hurries, and so he definitely had an impact on the passing game to some degree despite the lack of actual sacks in the record books.
Freshman Brant Lawless (6’3, 285 lbs)
A disclaimer needs to be made about Lawless being a key addition to the 2018-19 Tar Heels: he isn’t likely to see a lot of time on the field this year, if he does at all. It is a possibility that we may see him near the end of the year to get some live game reps in, but honestly it depends on how the season shakes out. With that said, let’s discuss why he is an important addition nonetheless.
Lawless is a four-star defensive tackle from Nashville, TN and is ranked the 22nd best at his position in the country. Lawless signed a letter of intent with Tennessee initially, before being granted release from it last month. UNC assistant coach Tommy Thigpen was Lawless’s lead recruiter at Tennessee, and so it made sense that he was a big part in getting Lawless over to Chapel Hill a couple weeks ago for an official visit.
Lawless joins Jahlil Taylor and Gavin Lewis as the incoming freshmen on the defensive line. He is known for being able to get off of the ball quickly, does a good job shedding blocks and is extremely athletic. Lawless can stand to improve his pad levels when going up against the line and needs to develop moves off of the ball, but these are all things that can be easily fixed over time. We should expect to see Lawless work his way into the rotation during his sophomore campaign.
When looking at what to expect from the defensive line this year, it’s hard to figure out whether or not the Heels will be in for some struggle during the eight games that they will be without Carney and Fox as a collective. They are such significant contributors in the pass rush that it’s hard to foresee things going well for at least the first few games, and yet at the same time this position has a lot of depth this year. The consensus from the players and staff is that there shouldn’t be a dropoff in talent when non-starters take the field.
Junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford spoke with Inside Carolina about what the focus will be this season on the defensive side of the ball:
”First and foremost, stop the run. That’s something we emphasize in practice every day. Definitely cutting down on the critical plays, the critical errors that happen late in the game especially. We’ve gotten to a point where the explosive plays that we’ve set up throughout the year have gotten lower and lower, but those critical plays that kind of explode and swing the momentum of the game, those are things that we need to stop going forward.”
Looking at the big picture, once the suspensions are over Fedora has a chance to put the defense on the field that is similar to last year’s. Focusing on the defensive line specifically, not a lot has changed. The Heels were able to control the game on the defensive side of the ball against multiple opponents last year before simply running out of gas. Were they dominating? Of course not, but compared to years like 2016 and one would have to think there’s a reason for a touch of optimism. Also an important thing to keep in mind is that UNC had the lead in 8 of the 12 games last season at halftime. They were also outscored in the fourth quarter 102-50 by Power 5 opponents. The biggest frustration with defenses in football is that if the offense is bad, defensive players see way too much time on the field and will eventually run out of gas. If Fedora can figure out how to get his offense back on track, it will help the defense take the step forward they need, and I can imagine that we will see some fresher legs being able to get to the quarterback.
In short, the defensive line should remain one of the best positions for UNC despite the suspensions of Carney and Fox. It helps a lot that they are spaced out, so no matter what there will be at least one player on the field each game that has the experience and proven production to make an impact. Let’s just hope that everyone remains healthy this year, because this position has the potential to be a lot of fun to watch.