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UNC Football Position Preview: Linebackers

With just one spot filled, who steps up for the Tar Heels?

California v North Carolina
Cole Holcomb #36 makes the tackle last year in the season opener
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The good news for the North Carolina Tar Heels at the linebacker position? UNC is returning their leading tackler from the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Cole Holcomb, to linebacker. The bad news? There are big shoes to fill with the departure of Andre Smith and Cayson Collins to the NFL.

However, there are a couple of likely candidates and a crop of young talent that can make the linebacker corps a surprise strength of this Carolina team.

Here is a look at the linebackers on the 2018 roster:

2018 UNC Linebackers Roster

Number Name Height Weight Year Hometown and High School
Number Name Height Weight Year Hometown and High School
3 Dominique Ross 6-3 220 Junior Jacksonville, Fla. / Trinity Christian Academy
7 Jonathan Smith 6-1 230 Junior Laurinburg, N.C. / Scotland County
10 Kyle Wright 6-1 235 Freshman Blythewood, S.C. / Ben Lippen
24 Malik Robinson 6-0 215 Sophomore Snellville, Ga. / South Gwinnett
26 Kayne Roberts 6-3 215 Redshirt Freshman Greenback, Tenn. / Greenback School
30 Matthew Flint 6-1 235 Freshman Gurley, Ala. / Madison County
36 Cole Holcomb 6-1 235 Senior New Smyrna Beach, Fla. / New Smyrna Beach
40 Dilan Gonzalez 6-1 215 Freshman Broomfield, Colo. / Holy Family
44 Jeremiah Gemmel 6-1 220 Redshirt Freshman Sharpsburg, Ga. / East Coweta
47 Sam Blobe 6-2 235 Senior Carrboro, N.C. / Carrboro
57 Austin Dowler 6-0 225 Redshirt Freshman Wake Forest, N.C. / Heritage

After last season’s unfortunate injury to Andre Smith in the second game of the season, Holcomb had to step up in a big way. He shifted to middle linebacker and was one of the lone bright spots in a lowly Tar Heel defense.

Holcomb started the first 11 games of the season, was injured in the game versus Western Carolina, and missed the season finale against NC State. As mentioned previously, he led the team in tackles with 93. His 8.5 tackles per game was good for sixth in the conference. On the season, he had 2.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery versus Georgia Tech, four QB hurries, and three passes defended.

Will Holcomb move back to his position on the weak side? According to a report from Inside Carolina, it will depend on whether or not Jonathan Smith, or another Tar Heel, steps up and is able to perform in the middle.

Holcomb gave his introduction to the linebacker corps just a few days ago during training camp:

For Smith, he has the opportunity to build upon his performance from last season. He started four games and made appearances in 11. He finished the season seventh on the team with 40 tackles. One of the highlights of Smith’s season was his 28-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against WCU.

The last question mark for the linebackers as we march towards the season opener is the strong side position. Right now, all signs point to Dominique Ross as the leading contender for that position.

After a productive true freshman season when he appeared in all 13 games, Ross was also bit by last year’s injury bug. He appeared in just seven games, but he did make the start in the season finale. Will he step up and take control of that starting position on the strong side? He and Smith will be two focal points for outside spectators as training camp continues.

Behind those three, experience is thin, however there is some young potential in the depth chart.

The only other linebacker with collegiate experience is Malik Robinson. He appeared in 11 games last year in his true freshman season, mostly on special teams. However, he is one of the players suspended to start the season.

Kyle Wright, Matthew Flint, and Jeremiah Gemmel are three freshmen that were solid recruits out of high school and will likely see playing time this year in some capacity.

According to 247 Sports, Wright was the 28th ranked inside linebacker in the country, while Gemmel and Flint were ranked the 33rd and 36th outside linebackers in the nation.

According to reports from Inside Carolina, Flint and Gemmel are players that are making positive impressions on both teammates and the coaching staff during camp. The Tar Heels will need these type of contributors whether or not the team has a injury plague like 2017.

With optimism surrounding the defensive line, there is hope that there will be an overall improvement in run defense. The linebackers will be a critical component to this effort.

Who will be the other two starters for the Tar Heels? Will there be any surprises with the young guys?