Coming out of the 2019 season, one of the biggest takeaways from the Mack Brown era was that the offensive side of the ball has a very high ceiling as long as Sam Howell is under center for the Tar Heels (and hopefully beyond). However, Jay Bateman’s defensive unit showed a lot of promise as well, and this year they will likely take another step forward in becoming the stingy, ball-hawking defense of our dreams. That dream begins and ends with the defensive line, which is what we are here to discuss.
Let’s take a look at this year’s defensive line, and also we will discuss what Mack Brown had to say about this group and who he thinks has shown the most improvement.
Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge were two key contributors to last year’s defensive line. Crawford finished the season with a run defense grade of 91.3 per Pro Football Focus, which was the highest grade amongst Power Five linemen. He finished the season with 50 total tackles, 23 solo tackles, 27 assisted tackles, three sacks, and 9 tackles for loss. His ability to feast on running backs will be sorely missed on this year’s team, as he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent.
Strowbridge is also a player that will be missed, as he ranked as the 23rd best lineman in the Power Five this past season according to Pro Football Focus. He matched Crawford’s three sacks for the season, which was good enough to tie for third on the team, and he also recorded 27 solo tackles, 18 assisted tackles, 49 total tackles, one forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries. In the NFL Draft Strowbridge was selected in the fifth round as the 154th overall pick by the Miami Dolphins.
The Tar Heels return a number of players for the defensive line, but the key players in the mix are Jahlil Taylor, Raymond Vohasek, Xach Gill, and Tomari Fox. During Mack Brown’s press conference this week Inside Carolina’s Greg Barnes asked Mack Brown about his thoughts of where the line is currently at, and he had a lot of praise for what Ray Vohasek has been able to do so far.
“The most improved player, maybe, on our team from this time last year is Ray Vohasek,” Brown said during the presser. “He is all over the place. He’s quick. He’s over 300 pounds. He’s in great shape. He’s making great grades. I’m so excited about Ray and what he brings to us. We’ve had trouble blocking him at all. He’s improved so much.”
Vohasek got a bulk of his snaps during the 2019 season in the final five games of the season. He finished the season with 8 solo tackles, 7 solo tackles, 15 total tackles, and a sack. He suffered a shoulder labrum tear his senior year of high school, and was out of commission for close to two years. Now that he is healthy he has done a great job climbing the depth chart, and we should expect to see a lot of him this season.
Jahlil Taylor is another player that should see a lot of action this fall. Mack Brown stated that he hasn’t seen a lot of time with the team due to a sore shoulder, but he said if they were to prepare for game day this week both Taylor and Vohasek would start the game. Last season Taylor finished with 7 solo tackles, and 4 assisted tackles.
Mack Brown did a great job of adding depth to the defensive line when he recruited for this 2020 class. He and his staff managed to lock down four-star defensive ends Myles Murphy, Kedrick Bingley-Jones, and Clyde Pinder, while also adding A.J. Beatty and Colby Doreen into the fold. According to Brown, Myles Murphy is already making a lot of plays for the Heels in practice, which is not surprising considering that he was the sixth-best strongside defensive end in the country coming out of high school. Pinder is also a guy worth keeping an eye on, but right now he is fighting off an illness so he has been limited in practice.
When it comes to whether or not these freshmen will be able to contribute right away, Brown discussed in his press conference how they are trying to figure out who the best two deep are, and potentially even three. Bateman’s defense is one with a lot of moving parts up front, so I’d expect these guys to get involved early and often to help out the upperclassmen.
Now that we are in the second year of the Mack Brown era, we have a little bit better of an idea of what to expect, but one of the questions that we will have to wait to have answered is how some of these new pieces will be able to contribute up front. Another question that was raised during this week’s presser is who we would see at nose tackle, and what we learned is that we will likely see players moved around on the line depending on the play, there really isn’t anybody set at a specific spot. Brown did mentioned linebackers Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper as guys that would likely be lined up on the outside of Jahlil Taylor and Ray Vohasek, and that Tomon’s brother Tomari Fox would be a useful piece due to his versatility.
Considering the fact that this group relied so heavily on Strowbridge and Crawford last season, things sound rather optimistic for this group. It will be interesting to see if this line will be able to get to put enough pressure on the quarterback to log positive plays, and senior linebacker Chazz Surratt will be more than happy to help them finish plays off. Everything that the Heels want to do on defense will start with this front, and if they can at least bend but not break so that the rest of the defense can create plays, then things will look pretty good. However, it’d be naive to believe they won’t have some fun of their own, and I can’t wait to see how everything unfolds.
If you missed our other positional previews, check them out by following the links below: