One of the easiest ways to measure the quality of a defensive line is to look at its numbers against the rush. In 2012, a defensive front led by future NFL draftees Sylvester Williams and Kareem Martin finished 25th in that category, yielding 3.6 yards per rush attempt.
Since that year (Larry Fedora’s first) the Heels have had exactly two seasons in which they finished in the top 80 in the country— topping out twice around 65th, perfectly average. More often than not, however, they found themselves outside of the top 100, culminated by allowing 5.05 yards per rush last year— good for 110th out of 130 teams.
Needless to say, those numbers need to improve dramatically, and rapidly.
Mack Brown hit a home run with the hiring of former Army DC Jay Bateman. Bateman runs what is lazily referred to as a “positionless” scheme, where the personnel varies from a 3-4, to a 3-3-5, to a basic Nickel package, to a 2-4-5 from play to play. Gone are the days of the traditional four-man front in Chapel Hill.
The timing couldn’t have been better. North Carolina doesn’t possess the quality depth to run a necessary rotation of 8-10 traditional linemen after the graduations of Malik Carney, Jeremiah Clarke, Jalen Dalton, and Tyler Powell. Bateman’s innovations and flexibility make the depth issues significantly less glaring— but any improvement the line shows will be dictated by the Heels’ health up front.
Standout defensive tackle Aaron Crawford ended up seeing action in two games last year due to various injuries, and he is back for his 5th year and noticeably slimmer. As was the case going into 2018, he and fellow senior Jason Strowbridge will be relied upon to anchor a unit that has only disappointed in recent years.
It all starts with Crawford. Playing the 1-technique (lined up between the center and guard, though occasionally he’ll be a traditional nose tackle), Crawford will be asked to occupy multiple blockers and allow the other 10 guys on the field to flow to the ball.
If he stays healthy, look for the schematic switch to pay immediate dividends. If he doesn’t? Oh boy.
Along with Crawford, Jason Strowbridge figures as the most prominent (and important, save for maybe fellow senior corner Patrice Rene) member of this defense. He’ll play the 4i defensive end spot, where his athleticism on a 280-pound frame may shine even more than it did in an impressive 2018 campaign, where he finished with 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Back to the “positionless” nature of this defense, the other starter(s) will have some overlap with the linebacking corps. Junior Tomon Fox and sophomore Chris Collins will both be asked to rush the passer as de facto defensive ends, though both will occasionally be asked to play some zone coverage.
In Fox, you have perhaps the most potential on the Heels’ defense. He finished second on the team with 4 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2017, and regressed to 2.5 in 2018 (though he was second only to Carney in TFL with 8.5— despite missing four games due to ‘Shoegate’). He has the potential to be unlocked this year, and I am setting the over/under for sacks from #12 at 7.5.
Collins is a bit more of an unknown. The previous staff inexplicably burned his redshirt by allowing him to participate in five games (the new redshirt rule allows for four), but the rangy Virginian was impressive in his limited action.
Did I say depth was a concern? Depth is a concern. Behind Strowbridge and Crawford, there is nothing but unproven talent. Redshirt sophomore Xach Gill is the elder statesman of the second unit, and he has two games of experience under his belt.
I was personally very high on Jahlil Taylor as a recruit, and the redshirt freshman participated in two games last year. Possessing impressive quickness for his size (6’1, 305), the Heels need him to emerge as an ACC-caliber player now. He and Gill, along with true freshman Brant Lawless (a former 4* recruit) are the only guys on the roster with the body composition to ably back up Crawford’s spot at the point of attack.
At the 4i, you may see Gill get some burn here— but I’m intrigued by redshirt freshman Lancine Turay, who apparently put on about 40 pounds since last season. He now stands at an impressive 6’5, 280. Junior college transfer Ray Vohasek will be counted on to provide valuable snaps with his maturity relative to the rest of the depth chart, and his versatility.
Behind the rush ends, the early returns in fall camp have been positive on redshirt sophomore and former 4* Jake Lawler. Junior Tyrone Hopper, who missed four games due to ‘Shoegate’ last year, is back at full strength, as is senior Allen Cater, who missed the final five games of the 2018 season.
True freshmen Tomari Fox, Wisdom Asaboro, Kevin Hester, and Kristian Varner are all intriguing prospects for different reasons. In Fox (Tomon’s younger brother), you have a grown man at 6’3 280. I frankly expect him to play early and not redshirt. Asaboro is an imposing figure at 6’8 and pushing 300 pounds, but with only two years of football experience, I expect him to be brought along slowly.
Hester and Varner are both long-term potential plays, as they have a lot in common: both were basketball players who made the move to the gridiron late in their high school careers. Both hail from Georgia. And finally, both have the rangy frames to fit really well into the 4i positions on this defense. Along with Asaboro, the hope will be to see them used sparingly, and perhaps unleashed for extensive action in the second half of the Mercer game in late November.
Please stay healthy, Jason and Aaron. Please don’t get suspended, everyone.