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UNC Football Midseason Review: Defensive MVP

Carolina’s defense has mostly been a mess this season, but Cedric Gray has impressed. Immensely

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The defense has been a sore subject since Week 1, when Carolina gave up 61 points to App State in Boone. So far this season, the Tar Heels have earned the 125th ranked defense in FBS, standing above only six teams. Carolina surrenders an average of 476.3 yards per game, and opponents have scored 30 touchdowns in seven games.

But it’s not all bad.

There was mild trepidation after last season when linebacking stalwart Jeremiah Gemmel packed his bags and left Chapel Hill for a shot at the 49ers roster. He had been a pillar of the past several defenses, outshined at times by Cedric Gray and especially Chazz Surratt, but reliable and productive. A pick-up truck with 200,000 miles and no signs of slowing down next to a Ferrari that needed a lot of fine-tuning.

We shouldn’t be so surprised that Cedric Gray has essentially picked up Gemmel’s banner and carried it to new found glory. Last season, Gray started all 13 games for UNC and led the team in tackles with 100—25 more than Gemmel. This season, as the leader of the defense, he has taken Power Echols under his wing and turned him into a more violent Robin to his Batman. Gray again leads the team in tackles with 74, easily on track to eclipse his total from last year, and Echols is right behind with 66. Sharing is caring.

Gray’s impact isn’t just in his volume of tackles. He makes plays that change the game all over the field. He has two interceptions this year, one at App State (right before Carolina’s fourth quarter meltdown), and one against Virginia Tech that led to a one-play touchdown drive, essentially putting the game out of reach for the Hokies:

But there will probably be no bigger play than when he suplexed Jaleel Skinner to keep Miami inbounds (with the clock running) that set up the game-sealing interception to DeAndre Boykins. Go to the 2:01 minute mark on the video below to see it from another angle than you saw on TV, it was an unreal feat of physical skill and mental wherewithal:

Miami surely won’t shed any tears when Cedric Gray heads to the NFL. He also killed a Hurricane drive in the closing seconds of another 3-point loss to Carolina last season in Chapel Hill:

If you doubt how important Cedric Gray is to this defense, remember how quiet you were when he went down in the Duke game. Imagining Power Echols and Rara Dillworth in the middle of defense without their big brother is tough. UNC’s defense will not become a juggernaut overnight. They don’t need to be. As long as they can make a few timely stops and maybe grab a few turnovers, Carolina’s offense should do enough to win most games. Those low expectations are enough to win, but are impossible without Cedric Gray.