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UNC Football Position Preview: The Linebackers

First-team All-ACC selection Chazz Surratt isn’t the only linebacker returning for a unit that has high expectations

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the recent COVID outbreaks on campus, and the university’s decision to continue instruction via online platforms, football games are still expected to begin next month. With that universal understanding acknowledged, we continue out position previews with the linebacking corps. A noticeable weakness on the field for the better part of a decade, the Heels’ linebackers showed glimpses last season of becoming a strength for the defense. Here’s a quick rundown.

The Returnees

Like much of UNC’s roster, the linebackers return almost all of their production from last season. Swiss Army knife nickelbacker Dominique Ross graduated, but first-team All-ACC selection Chazz Surratt returns, along with junior Jeremiah Gemmel and senior outside linebacker Tomon Fox. That triumvirate combined for 240 tackles and 16.5 sacks last year, or 27.6% of UNC’s total tackles and 53% of their sacks. Those are even more impressive when you consider it was their first season learning Jay Bateman’s defensive schemes with minimal depth.

UNC also welcomes back Tyrone Hopper (pass rusher, 16 tackles/1.5 sacks) and backup inside linebackers Eugene Asante (12 tackles), and Khadry Jackson (11 tackles) but that’s the extent of the returning productive depth at the position. As sophomores, Asante and Jackson will back up Gemmel and Surratt, while the 6-4, 245-pound Hopper will line up on the outside or stand up on the line opposite Fox in 3-4 looks. If any of these players, especially Hopper, can make a significant leap in year two with Mack and Bateman, they’ll make up for any experience deficiencies along the defensive line.

The New Guys

This is where the coaching staff has really earned their money over the last 18 months. North Carolina welcomes four scholarship freshmen at linebacker. Most fans are aware of ESPN’s #2 overall recruit, Desmond Evans, and he will certainly see reps. Listed at almost 6-6 and 245 pounds, he has the potential (expectations?) to be a significant contributor as an outside linebacker in his first year, either because of talent, lack of depth, or both.

However, Kaimon Rucker (OLB, 6-1, 255), Ethan West (ILB, 6-3, 235), and Cedric Gray (ILB 6-1, 215) will also add depth and versatility. Bateman’s schemes are only going to become more complex and/or nuanced, especially with a healthy and talented secondary. That should provide opportunities for the young guys to see the field, especially if the Heels have to get creative to mask any defensive line troubles.

What to expect

I’m likely in the minority, but this position group has a boom-or-bust feeling to it. An extremely talented and productive first string is largely backed up by hope, youth, and inexperience. Already lacking traditional spring and summer workouts, practices, and strength sessions to develop much-needed depth, Surratt, Fox, and Gemmel, may actually be relied on more this year than they were last year.

On the surface, that seems obvious and maybe even preferable. With another year in Bateman’s system, it’s not unfathomable to think Surratt and Fox could both reach double digit sacks after both tallying 6.5 last year. When Bateman was at Army, a linebacker or hybrid DL/LB led the Black Knights in sacks every year he was there, largely because his defensive lines were at a disadvantage against most schools. This UNC team likely faces similar disadvantages relative to their competition. Bateman is comfortable dialing up coverage and mismatches to get his linebackers in the backfield, whether they’re gap rushers or blitzers, and this year could be even more productive than last season was.

However, unlike the secondary, the linebackers enjoyed relatively good health throughout the 2019 season. With so many new faces and just two returnees, one of which who may start on one of the edges (Hopper), the Heels are one injury away from having a gaping hole in the middle of the field. That would be a dire predicament for a group that also struggled to cover receivers out of motion or the backfield. We should all remember the Clemson and Pittsburgh backbreakers.

There is a counterargument to this. It’s fair to say that a more advanced defensive scheme, mixed with returning experience, and a higher level of freshmen talent than past seasons, will help enhance strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Losing one of Fox, Gemmel, or Surratt for a game or two may not be as insurmountable as may have been last year — especially if Asante, Hopper, or Evans are better than anticipated. And, if the Heels’ offense is as explosive as expected, fewer close games will create more repetitions for the second and third-string players.

If it seems like we’re hedging out bets, our apologies. This crew does have the potential to land multiple players on the all-ACC team at the end of the season. Yes, I realize that considering the recent history of UNC’s linebacker ineffectiveness (Cole Holcomb not withstanding), just writing those words seems preposterous.

If one player goes down, though, or gets sidelined by COVID, there are too many unknowns for fans to feel comfortable, without expecting the burden to fall to other position groups.