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UNC Football Position Previews: Linebackers

Jeremiah Gemmel and Tomon Fox leads a group that will have more depth than last season.

Capital One Orange Bowl - Texas A&M v North Carolina Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels defense returns 10 of 11 starters from last season. The lone departure is Chazz Surratt, a two-time first-team All-ACC inside linebacker.

When a defense loses such a talent, especially one that led the team in tackles and played over 90 percent of the snaps at the position, there is usually a drop off at the position.

Yet, the outlook for the linebackers this season is great. The groups talent and depth is a combination that will allow the players to excel this season.

When Mack Brown returned to Carolina, he spoke extensively about building quality depth. The linebackers, and the defense as a whole, are achieving that goal.

Here is what Brown said about depth in the press conference after last week’s scrimmage:

We’ve got a lot of bodies. We’ve got a lot of guys, and will a freshman be ready to play 15 plays at Virginia Tech? Will he be able to play 25? Do we play more linebackers than we’ve played? We haven’t played but two linebackers for two years so do we play more now? Do we put in a third linebacker to start early? Do we rotate early? We’re kind of growing as a staff as our team grows and gets better.

With Jeremiah Gemmel returning after an excellent season and Eugene Asante ready to step up to fill the void left by Surratt, the starting pair of inside linebackers is solid.

Brown, in the same presser after the scrimmage, spoke very highly of Gemmel:

He’s one of the best players on our team. He’s one of the best leaders, I think, in the ACC. I think he’s the most underrated player in the ACC. Not enough people talk about him. And he’s not on those all star teams. You all should put him on there. He is a great player.

Gemmel, named to the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List for the nation’s top linebacker, has the opportunity to have a special season.

Last season, the 2020 team captain was second on the team in tackles, tied for the team lead with seven hurries, second with four breakups, and tied for fourth with six tackles for loss.

A deeper defensive line and a more experienced secondary allow Gemmel and the linebackers to focus on their roles, rather than stretching to cover holes in the defense.

This is evident in Gemmel’s tackle totals from the past two seasons. He had more total tackles in 2019, but with a better defensive unit in 2020, Gemmel’s total tackles decreased while solo tackles increased.

But do not expect to Gemmel and Astante to shoulder the entire burden at the mike and will linebacker positions. The mindset of the coaching staff this season is locked in on fewer, but more productive snaps.

2021 UNC Linebackers

Number Name Height Weight Year Hometown and High School
Number Name Height Weight Year Hometown and High School
7 Eugene Asante Linebacker 6-0.5 220 Jr.
10 Desmond Evans Linebacker 6-5.75 265 So.
11 Raneiria 'Rara' Dillworth Linebacker 6-1.5 205 Fr.
12 Tomon Fox Linebacker 6-3.25 260 Gr.
17 Chris Collins Linebacker 6-4.5 255 Jr.
19 Ethan West Linebacker 6-2.75 245 R-Fr.
23 Power Echols Linebacker 5-11.5 220 Fr.
25 Kaimon Rucker Linebacker 6-1.25 260 So.
26 Trevion Stevenson Linebacker 6-4.5 240 Fr.
33 Cedric Gray Linebacker 6-1.5 225 So.
34 Gabe Stephens Linebacker 6-3.75 225 Fr.
36 Jalen Brooks Linebacker 6-0 240 R-Fr.
42 Tyrone Hopper Linebacker 6-4 245 Gr.
43 Braden Hunter Linebacker 6-1 230 R-Fr.
44 Jeremiah Gemmel Linebacker 6-1 225 Sr.
45 Jake Harkleroad Linebacker 5-10 215 So.
53 Gibson Macrae Linebacker 6-1.5 230 Fr.
97 Alex Nobles Linebacker 6-1.75 250 Jr.

When speaking of sophomore Cedric Gray, who will likely be Gemmel’s backup, and four-star freshmen RaRa Dillworth and Power Echols, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said, “They’re so talented, we’ve got to put them out there.”

Last year’s defense tallied 36 sacks, the most for the Tar Heels since 2000. At outside linebacker, last year’s squad contributed 10 sacks.

Tomon Fox, the career start leader on the current team, had four sacks last season and currently ranks fifth in career sacks at UNC.

If Fox can match his sack total from last year, he will pass Tar Heel greats Lawrence Taylor, Quinton Coples, and Marcus Jones for sole possession of third on the all-time Carolina sacks list.

Along with Fox, Tyrone Hopper, Desmond Evans, and Chris Collins return from last season, and each of these players earned starts last season.

When combined with the expected contributions from sophomore Kaimon Rucker, the hybrid outside linebacker in Jay Bateman’s system is another experienced and deep group that should provide quality snaps throughout each game.

With Gemmel and Fox leading the way, there are great expectations for this linebackers group. With quality depth at each position, the players will be fresher during games while having a safety net in the event of injuries or illness.

Tar Heel fans- what do you expect out of the linebackers this season?