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UNC Football: Time to gawk at the future of the Tar Heel defense

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Elite talent AND an elite defensive coordinator? Yes, please.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Clemson at North Carolina

With the commitment of borderline 5-star Keeshawn Silver in the wee hours of Tuesday night, North Carolina’s 2021 recruiting class now boasts four blue-chip talents on the defensive side of the ball.

On the Heels of a 2020 signing class boasting six more such players in Desmond Evans, Myles Murphy, Kedrick Bingley-Jones, JaQuirious Conley, Clyde Pinder, and Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, the future of the UNC defense boasts elite talent going into the 2020s after a decade of (this is me editorializing) willfully ignoring that side of the ball altogether.

During the 2019 season, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was dealt a defense that boasted zero blue-chippers (4-star and above per 247’s consensus ratings) who played meaningful snaps— only the now-departed Jake Lawler and Brant Lawless-Sherrill, and injured cornerback Tre Shaw boasted that distinction.

The Heels also dealt with a cavalcade of injuries to the secondary, losing Patrice Rene, Trey Morrison, Bryson Richardson, Cam’Ron Kelly, and Myles Wolfolk for a combined 42 full games of action.

Despite that, Bateman’s unit ranked 50th in the nation in yards per play allowed in 2019— the previous five units averaged a rank in the 80’s despite a nice showing in 2016. Per SP+ (which you know I love) the Heels ‘D’ jumped 51 spots— from 95th to 44th— in Bateman’s first season.

What happens when elite scheme meets elite talent? We’re poised to find out.

2020

Carolina loses stalwarts in defensive linemen Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, as well as Dominique Ross and Myles Dorn, to graduation prior to next season. The defensive line is a major concern, as young players such as Ray Vohasek, Jahlil Taylor, and Tomari Fox will have to step up to replicate Strowbridge and Crawford’s production. The line will be aided by two raw redshirt freshmen in Kevin Hester and Kristian Varner, as well as the influx of five defensive linemen from the 2020 class. Relying on two players for production is dangerous, and UNC will have the benefit of greater depth on the line this year.

The rest of the defense? Whoo boy. Playmaking linebacker Chazz Surratt is back to defend his All-ACC bona fides. Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper provide senior leadership at the outside LB spots, and incumbent starter Jeremiah Gemmel will have to hold off Eugene Asante and Khadry Jackson on the inside.

All of the names mentioned above in the secondary return, along with former top-100 recruit Kyler McMichael and Virginia Tech starter Bryce Watts at cornerback. The 2020 defense, on the whole, will be much improved due to scheme familiarity and depth before we even talk about new, untested talent.

2021 and beyond

Lord have mercy.

The Heels stand to lose Surratt, Hopper, Fox, Rene, Wolfolk, and D.J. Ford after the 2020 campaign.

They have studs incoming at every position to replenish the depth.

With the disclaimer that not every recruit will live up to his hype, consider the returning talent for 2021 versus predecessors:

  • Defensive line: seniors Vohasek and Xach Gill, junior Taylor and Tomari Fox, redshirt sophomores Varner and Hester, true sophomores/redshirt freshmen Bingley-Jones, Murphy, Pinder, Beatty— from zero blue-chippers in 2019 to at least three, plus at least four guys getting the bulk of snaps in 2020. Let’s throw Silver in here for good measure.
  • Outside/Rush LB: Fox and Hopper are gone, but...let’s see: Desmond freakin’ Evans, Silver if he doesn’t add much weight. Add to that a fourth-year junior in the athletic Chris Collins, and 2020 recruits Ethan West and Kaimon Rucker. Oh, then there is the athletic 4* recruit Gabe Stephens, who has been compared to Isaiah Simmons.
  • Inside LB: Lose Surratt, keep Gemmel for his fifth year. Asante and Jackson are both good enough to start in 2020 but are behind the incumbents. Matthew Flint was Larry Fedora’s best linebacker recruit in his whole tenure, and will play a role if healthy. And Cedric Gray ended up getting a 4th star for the 2020 cycle. Need more? Okay, Power Echols— the two-time state defensive player of the year...who still has another year of high school football.
  • The defensive backfield should return everyone outside of Rene, Wolfolk, and Ford. Names I didn’t mention above include Storm Duck, Don Chapman, Obi Egbuna, Giovanni Biggers, and Javon Terry. Add 4* Dontavious Nash to the mix as well.

In total, the 2021 defensive two-deep will have, at a minimum, 16 blue-chip recruits on its two-deep— and most will have eligibility through at least 2023. To reiterate, the 2019 defensive two-deep had zero. Nada. None.

Let’s see what Jay Bateman, whose scheme was fairly vanilla in 2019, does with his whole playbook and an arsenal of NFL talent all over the field.