When looking at the North Carolina Tar Heels defense, there is cautious optimism when looking at the returning talent in the secondary and on the line.
The return of Gene Chizik, formally holding the title of Assistant Head Coach for Defense, brings back good memories for Carolina fans as he crafted the impressive turnaround of the UNC defense in 2015 and 2016.
In spite of these factors, the weakest link of the preseason defensive outlook is the linebackers.
Even before injuries at other position groups, the linebackers were thin and very inexperienced.
The linebackers lost two captains and 2021 Third Team All-ACC players Jeremiah Gemmel and Tomon Fox to graduation and the NFL.
Desmond Evans and Kaimon Rucker are officially listed on the defensive line this season.
Presumptive 2022 starter Eugene Asante, along with Trevion Stevenson, Alex Nobles, and Tyrone Hopper were lost to the transfer portal.
Ethan West medically retired from football.
|11||Raneiria 'Rara' Dillworth||6-1.25||200||So.||Winston-Salem, N.C. / Glenn|
|23||Power Echols||6-0.25||225||So.||Charlotte, N.C. / Chambers|
|32||Sebastian Cheeks||6-3.25||220||Fr.||Skokie, Ill. / Evanston Township|
|33||Cedric Gray||6-2||230||Jr.||Charlotte, N.C. / Ardrey Kell|
|36||Jalen Brooks||5-10.5||235||So.||Knightdale, N.C. / Cardinal Gibbons|
|44||Randy 'Deuce' Caldwell||6-0||225||Fr.||Mauldin, S.C. / Mauldin|
|45||Jake Harkleroad||5-10.5||215||Jr.||Charlotte, N.C. / Myers Park|
|47||CJ Murphy||6-1.5||225||Fr.||Bryn Mawr, Pa. / Radnor|
|48||Milad Aghaiepour||5-10.5||215||So.||Chapel Hill, N.C. / Chapel Hill|
|53||Gibson Macrae||5-11||215||R-Fr.||Pinehurst, N.C. / Pinecrest|
|7||Noah Taylor||6-5||240||Gr.||Silver Spring, Md. / Avalon School/Virginia|
|17||Chris Collins||6-4.25||245||Gr.||Richmond, Va. / Benedictine College Prep|
|24||Malaki Hamrick||6-2.25||215||Fr.||Shelby, N.C. / Shelby|
|34||Gabe Stephens||6-3.25||225||R-Fr.||Mount Holly, N.C. / Mountain Island Charter|
|87||Colby Doreen||6-3.5||235||So.||Middletown, Md. / Middletown|
Head coach Mack Brown put it plainly during a training camp press conference:
And we’re thin at linebacker because we only have five scholarship linebackers and only two have really played. Power played the 100 plays. Ced played a whole lot, he played 900. But then RaRa and Sebastian Cheeks, they need to come out, and Sebastian is a true freshman. And then you’ve got Deuce Caldwell, who’s been here for eight practices. So we’re not as far along in a couple of those areas as we’d like to be. But we feel like we’ve got good enough players. What we got to do is be smart and make sure that we coach them the right way.
In a follow-up press conference this week, Brown spoke specifically about Power Echols:
Power Echols is a machine. And then he just loves to play. He’s a little undersized, but he plays all over the field, every play.
Looking into the crystal ball, the only known quantity is Noah Taylor at jack, the weakside hybrid in the 3-4 defense. The graduate transfer from Virginia was third on the Cavaliers with 69 tackles in 12 starts last season.
As of writing, the presumptive starters are Echols at middle linebacker and Cedric Gray on the strong side. However, with the need to build experience at the position, expect a lot of time from RaRa Dillworth and Sebastian Cheeks.
There is plenty of talent on the field- Dillworth, Echols, and Stpehens are all four-star prospects. The learning curve will be steep, but perhaps with the opportunity to be on the field and learn under the guidance of a great defensive coach in Chizik will help with their maturation.
The obvious concern is injuries. With a thin and inexperienced group, this may be the biggest factor in the success of this group.