When it comes to what I am excited for this football season, it is hard for me not to think about what UNC’s defense will be able to do. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is back for his second stay with the Tar Heels after drastically transforming the defense during his first stay in Chapel Hill. Jay Bateman’s defense always showed potential, but ultimately I felt like his scheme failed to do the things that need to be done if this team is serious about becoming a national contender. Chizik is able to provide what is needed, but now it’s up to the players to bring it every week.
One group that will absolutely need to bring it is the defensive line. Now that Tomon Fox is in the NFL, it is next man up for a squad that generated 29 sacks during the 2021 season (nine of those were from Fox). This group always felt like they were better when Bateman felt like dialing up blitz packages that gave them help, but we may see this group of guys hold their own a bit better this season. With that said, let’s take a look at this year’s defensive line.
As I mentioned previously, current New York Giant Tomon Fox was an important player for the Heels last season. He finished the season with 24 solo tackles, nine assisted tackles, and nine sacks which resulted in a loss of 63 yards. To put that into context: the next highest sack total on the team was four last season, and as far as the defensive line goes. It is also worth noting here that Fox was listed as a linebacker, but really his role made him an unofficial lineman of sorts.
Outside of Fox, there’s not a lot to see here as far as key guys that left. So let’s go ahead and discuss who has returned to campus.
When taking a look at this year’s defensive line, all eyes should immediately go to Myles Murphy. Last season he totaled 19 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, and four sacks for 25 yards. While those numbers don’t exactly leap off of the page, Murphy was easily the biggest threat for opposing teams on the defensive line. His strength and agility were impressive, and I think his numbers could’ve been greater if he had more help. Thankfully there are some guys that arrived on campus that will do just that, as well as a couple of guys that should see more playing time that could make a huge impact.
One of the guys that could make a huge impact is Desmond Evans. Jay Bateman had Evans playing outside linebacker during his first two seasons with the Tar Heels, but Chizik is moving him back to the defensive line as God intended. Evans was the nation’s top-ranked defensive end coming out of high school, so moving him back to his natural role should pay off in a big way.
Finally, let’s talk about Kaimon Rucker and Ray Vohasek. Rucker came really close to matching Murphy’s production, totaling 19 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, and four sacks for 16 during the 2021 season. Right now he is projected to back up Desmond Evans, but we could see him get a number of snaps throughout the season. Then there is Vohasek, who might be the most interesting returnee because of the high hopes surrounding him last season. While he was able to produce — he had 38 total tackles and defended three passes — his one lone sack was a bit of a head-scratcher. We’ll have to see if he will be ready to put quarterbacks on their butt or if Chizik ends up tagging someone else in to generate pressure.
Greensboro-native and five-star player Travis Shaw is one of the biggest commitments that Mack Brown has landed since his return to Chapel Hill. The 6’5, 360-lb lineman is as athletic and powerful as you could ask for, and it will be hard to keep this guy on the bench as the season progresses. Coming out of high school he was the sixth-best defensive lineman in the country, and the 20th-best player in the country.
One of Shaw’s most dangerous moves is the bull rush, which probably isn’t very surprising considering how powerful he is. He still has to work on adding other moves to his arsenal, but the one he has is going to be very difficult for opposing offensive linemen to deal with. He is also unusually athletic for a player his size, so he has a good amount of upside when looking at how his Carolina career can play out. I’d have to imagine that Chizik gets Shaw a number of snaps throughout the season, and I would love to see him lined up with Myles Murphy and Desmond Evans. That trio could make for one of the most disruptive defensive line groups that we’ve seen in a Carolina uniform in a really long time.
It goes without saying that this season is hard to pin down when it comes to UNC’s defense, but it’s still hard not to be optimistic. Chizik came in and has put guys in their natural spots, and he has a lot of talent on that front line to where he can get really creative. Maybe I’m a bit broken, but I still have my concerns about what they can do without the help of linebackers or defensive backs. However, we’re in a new era of Carolina defense, and we could see a lot of quarterbacks in the dirt this season. Like, a lot.
To sum things up, I am cautiously optimistic about the defensive line, but this is a group that looks the part. Chizik will undoubtedly get creative from time to time, but if the line can find a way to get the job done without any outside help, the sky just might be the limit for this defense.