Enough about the offense. We get it, the offensive line is promising, the wide receivers are untested but exciting, the running backs are filling two (four?) large shoes, and the Supreme Slinger is a Heisman favorite. Exciting stuff all around. Now that we’ve worked through the boring part of the roster — the part that wins games — let’s take a look at the unit that wins championships: the defense.
More particularly, we’re going to take a look at the anchor of the unit, the base upon which a defense is built — the defensive line. I generally try to eschew military verbiage when discussing football (at least wherever possible; however violent it may be, it is still just a game), but there really is no better descriptor that comes to mind for the place that these men do their work than in the trenches. Series after series, snap after snap, reading and reacting to blocking schemes, and plugging holes in the attempt to get off the field. This squad does the dirty work, stuffing runs and pressuring opposing quarterbacks whenever possible, making life much more simple for the secondary.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to the internal guys. The DE/EDGE/OLB hybrid that stands up on the exterior and rushes situationally is more of a linebacker, in my eyes, and as we move away from the more clearly defined positions of defenses past that line will continue to blur.
Last year, in the Tar Heel Blog season preview for the defensive line, the inimitable Brandon Anderson identified four key players who would be returning for the 2020 season (such as it was). Now, stop me if any of these names ring a bell: Raymond Vohasek, Jahlil Taylor, Xach Gill, and Tomari Fox. They should, as three of these four will be returning in 2021 (with Gill, the lone exception, having transferred to Temple in January). There is a lot to be excited about in terms of returning production — in addition to the three aforementioned players, the Heels will also welcome back experienced depth in a string of sophomores: Myles Murphy, who’s coming off a true freshman season in which he notched eight tackles and a sack while seeing action in each game. Kevin Hester, Jr., who accounted for ten total tackles in ten games in last season’s redshirt freshman season. Clyde Pinder, Jr., with six totals and a sack in his first season as a Tar Heel. Finally, there is Kristian Varner, with one tackle in three appearances. All told, returning Carolina linemen will bring a triple-digit tackle total with them from last season, with Fox contributing 46 of his own to the final tally of 103 for these Tar Heels.
At time of writing, there are a few names missing from the roster that were present in 2020. Depth players such as William Robertson and A.J. Beatty are nowhere to be found — Beatty’s name is swirling around the transfer portal, whereas Robertson simply doesn’t appear on the roster for 2021. The Tar Heels also lost two more players to transfer earlier in the offseason — the aforementioned Xach Gill, a rising senior from last year’s squad, who I expect to be an impact player at Temple, where he transferred along with rising junior Lancine Turay.
Losing four players from a unit without a senior on last year’s roster is interesting, but not backbreaking. The unit as a whole has trimmed down to 11 men from the 13 that Carolina could rotate last year, and it’s always sad to lose depth. Thankfully, the departure of these former Heels’ production will not be terribly hard to reproduce, which brings me to the next point...
The current roster for the 2021 season lists two redshirt freshmen and two true freshmen among the defensive linemen. The term redshirt this year is, of course, purely academic, as everyone who was on a team last year has been offered an extra year of eligibility from the powers that be. In any case, one redshirt freshman, Colby Doreen, is a walk-on former tight end who appears a bit undersized to really eat blocks at 6’4” and only 245 pounds. The other redshirt freshman, Kedrick Bingley-Jones, is working his way back from a season-ending injury sustained early last season. After a year of rehabbing and regaining strength, I’m sure the former four-star recruit from Concord is ready to get back on the field and see what he can do. These two, while lacking live game experience, have been around the program for a year, and that kind of intangible will serve them well if they’re called upon in the coming season.
Speaking of being around the team for a longer period of time, we have our two true freshmen. Keeshawn Silver and Jahvaree Ritzie, with a total of nine stars between them as recruits, both enrolled early this year. Silver is a five-star recruit from Rocky Mount, an exciting signing who was part of Coach Brown’s blitz in the offseason to get in-state talent to Chapel Hill. He’s currently listed at 6’5.5”, 295 pounds, and was adept at reading and shedding blocks in high school. Ritzie is a four-star recruit from Kernersville, a slightly smaller (6’4.5”, 285) lineman who appears to have a great nose for the ball. These two freshmen, with the benefit of another semester after enrolling early, should be able to more than pick up the production that is missing from last year’s defensive line unit.
The future is bright if your hand’s in the dirt. When weighing the returning production versus what was lost in the offseason, the scales overwhelmingly tip in the favor of the coming season. I fully expect this unit to be even more effective than last year’s version, and I can’t wait to watch the new faces find their place in Coach Bateman’s defense. The importance of the hard, mostly unnoticed work that goes on at the line of scrimmage is hard to overstate, but a good defensive front can make things a whole lot more flexible in the secondary, and if Jeremiah Gemmel performs as he’s expected to (spoiler alert), he’ll owe a lot of credit to the players I’ve mentioned here. The defensive line room is full of an exciting mixture of experience, talent, and youth, and should provide a solid base for the rest of the defense to get the ball back in the hands of that vaunted Carolina offense.
Everything starts at the line of scrimmage, and the Heels have got a really promising unit that will hope to own that real estate this season.