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UNC Football Position Preview 2019: Linebackers

New faces and a new scheme face this untested group.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Head coach Mack Brown described the linebackers as “the most inexperienced group in the country.” There is plenty of evidence to back up that statement.

Only 75 total tackles were made in 2018 by the three returning linebackers of Dominique Ross (47), Jonathan Smith (27), and Jeremiah Gemmel (1). By comparison, 2018 senior linebacker Cole Holcomb had 105 total tackles last season.

In the roster below, there are some recognizable names, including Tomon Fox, Jake Lawler, and Chazz Surratt, who are new to linebacker this season.

2019 UNC Football Roster - Linebackers

Number Name Position Height Weight Year Hometown / High School
Number Name Position Height Weight Year Hometown / High School
3 Dominique Ross Linebacker 6-4 228 Sr. Jacksonville, Fla. / Trinity Christian Academy
7 Jonathan Smith Linebacker 6-0 228 Sr. Laurinburg, N.C. / Scotland County
8 Khadry Jackson Linebacker 6-1 220 Fr. Windermere, Fla. / Windermere Prep
12 Tomon Fox Linebacker 6-3 260 Jr. Lawrenceville, Ga. / Collins Hill
14 Jake Lawler Linebacker 6-4 245 So. Charlotte, N.C. / South Mecklenburg
17 Chris Collins Linebacker 6-4 240 So. Richmond, Va. / Benedictine College Prep
21 Chazz Surratt Linebacker 6-3 230 Jr. Denver, N.C. / East Lincoln
24 Eugene Asante Linebacker 6-1 215 Fr. Alexandria, Va. / Westfield
26 Jake Harkleroad Linebacker 5-10 200 Fr. Charlotte, N.C. / Myers Park
30 Matthew Flint Linebacker 6-0 240 R-Fr. Huntsville, Ala. / Madison County
33 Allen Cater Linebacker 6-4 260 Sr. Hiram, Ga. / Mt. Paran Christian School
42 Tyrone Hopper Linebacker 6-4 255 Jr. Roswell, Ga. / Roswell
43 Hunter Sheridan Linebacker 6-3 245 Jr. Charlotte, N.C. / Charlotte Latin
44 Jeremiah Gemmel Linebacker 6-1 228 So. Newnan, Ga. / East Coweta
47 Noah Taylor Linebacker 6-2 240 Jr. Greensboro, N.C. / Southwest Guilford
48 Dilan Gonzalez Linebacker 6-1 225 R-Fr. Broomfield, Colo. / Holy Family
49 Parks Cochrane Linebacker 5-11 230 Fr. Charleston, S.C. / IMG Academy
57 Austin Dowler Linebacker 6-0 225 So. Wake Forest, N.C. / Heritage
97 Alex Nobles Linebacker 6-1 250 R-Fr. Rocky Mount, N.C. / Nash Central

The biggest change to the linebacker corps will not be the fresh faces, but rather the new defensive scheme. With all the doubts surrounding the North Carolina Tar Heels defense, this should be the area in which there should be cautious optimism.

Jay Bateman was lauded as one, if not the best, hire by Brown in the offseason. The 2018 Broyles Award Finalist is known for getting the most out of his players, as demonstrated with his top-ten defense last season at West Point, and a fast, creative 3-4 base defense that keeps the opposition on their toes.

My colleague Chad Floyd wrote a great breakdown of Bateman’s defense and the new positions and roles in which the players may end up in the new scheme. As training camp has progressed, some of his predictions have come into fruition.

Some of the best insight on the changes to the defense came from the Q&A with Jake Lawler. Lawler has transitioned from a run-oriented defensive end to an outside linebacker/rush end that stands and can drop into coverage.

Here is some insight into those defensive changes from Lawler’s perspective:

I would say, defensively, I think it’s just a different schematic look. I mean, we’re standing up, and I think there’s a lot of different interwoven converges in that, as well, and I think there’s different things you kind of have to learn. But I think they explain it in such a way that makes it simpler for us to understand and I think they allow you to be more aggressive. I think those are some of the differences.

Tabbed for their athleticism in the move to the outside linebacker/rush end position, Lawler and Fox will be the two players to watch in this transition. Both are big guys that are aggressive to the ball. This was evident in Fox last season as he accumulated 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Even in limited action, Lawler had a sack and a tackle for loss.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 27 North Carolina at Virginia
Jake Lawler (14) and Jonathan Smith (7)
Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another two players to watch will be Ross and Surratt.

For Ross, it will be watching his further progression. He is a player that can certainly work in coverage and this scheme may better fit his skill set. Last season, he ranked fifth in total tackles with 47 and broke up four passes, good for second on the team.

For Surratt, his quickness and athleticism are known quantities, but it will be a totally different transition as he moves to the defensive side of the ball.

This is what Brown had to say about Surratt:

He’s plenty physical, he can tackle, he’s a 4.4, he’s 230 pounds. All he’s got to do is do a better job of reading the play and just growing with his instincts because he’s got to have every possible mental rep that he can have because he hasn’t had that before.

As experience and depth have been recurring themes for the defense coming into training camp, Surratt will be a key piece in alleviating these issues.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Cal at North Carolina
Photo by Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And as reported by Inside Carolina, there is some extra motivation for Surratt this season. He is out to prove the critics wrong and make a positive difference on the football team. For the coaches, he is simply too much of an athletic talent to keep on the sidelines.

The consensus reaction after the scrimmage last week was that the defense outplayed the offense. It has been documented the past few weeks that the defense has had the better training camp.

This includes the linebackers.

Senior safety Myles Dorn praised the linebackers after the scrimmage. Via UNC Athletics:

They played really well. They’re smart – that’s one thing that’s slept on. They’re super smart and they’re fast. They might not be the biggest linebacking group in the ACC or in the NCAA, but they’re fast. You can’t really tell the difference between the speed in the secondary and our linebackers.

When asked about Dorn’s quote, Brown had this assessment of the linebackers:

The groups coming along well, it’s just the most inexperienced group in the country. You’ve got two older ones with Jon Smith and Dominique Ross, but then Surratt’s never played a ball game. Your two freshmen have never played a college ball game and then you’ve got Gemmel who hasn’t played really at all at that position in a game and Matt Flint who hasn’t played at all. Poor ol’ Tommy (Thigpen) may lose his hair, but they’re athletic and they’re trying and we’re making progress there. We didn’t have good fits early and this offense has got a lot of misdirection and a lot of things that make it hard on for linebackers and they’re doing a lot better now.

At the end of the day, it may be about trusting the scheme and attitude. Much like Surratt’s chip on his shoulder, the linebackers must go out and prove the critics wrong.

The best way to sum up the outlook for the linebackers is from Lawler’s Q&A:

I think we’re just tired. We’re just tired of the stigma behind our defense, where we can’t play well, we can’t defend the run, we can’t do anything like that. And I think we’ve just had enough. I think just as we’ve come together as a team, we’ve come together as a defense and decided this is enough and we’re done doing that and we’re going to play how we know we can play – we’re going to play fast, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to give everything we’ve got. And we have, and that’s why we’ve been having successful days.

New faces, new schemes, and a new attitude. How far will these take the linebackers in 2019?