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UNC's front seven ready to atone for last season's efforts

For the first time during the Fedora era, the defensive line and linebacker positions are fully loaded.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is right around the corner, preliminary depth charts have been released, and the most recent 2016 season previews are days away from flooding your screens. If you are a UNC fan, you already are well aware of the two most pressing topics.

  1. Is Mitch Trubisky ready to run the offense?

  2. Can the defense continue to improve, specifically against the run?

Honestly, UNC's ability to replicate anything close to last season's success likely hinges on the answers to both of those questions. Especially with a tougher expected schedule than last year. I do not have a clue to the quarterback question and anybody who claims they do are either Nostradamus or Marty McFly. However, I do have full confidence in our defense making more eyebrow-raising improvements.

Everyone knows the job Gene Chizik and the defensive staff did last year. Vast improvements throughout the defense were recognized. There was a smattering of Second and Third Team All-ACC selections. You can insert whatever other talking point you would like. You get the picture. That does not mean the defense was great, or even good. They were simply better than the previous season. That can change this year.  Stay with me, and I'll argue how the reasons for the substandard defensive performance are two-fold, but explain how UNC is in position to leave those problems in the past.

The foundation for the porous run defense was primarily caused by two factors. The first is often overlooked when talking about the current team: the 2012 penalties doled out by the NCAA. Those amounted to a one-year postseason ban and the loss of 15 scholarships over three years. UNC fans are understandably exhausted from anything related to the NCAA. Unfortunately, those penalties still have ramifications.

That punishment directly affected the 2012, 2013, and 2014 recruiting classes. That meant that UNC's brand new coaching staff could not capitalize on the 2012 Coastal Division Championship (yes I count that!), and the ACC title game appearance that would have followed. Additionally, as I often tell my wife, I did not go to math school, but that means that last year's 2015 recruiting class was the first time Larry Fedora and his staff had the full scholarship allotment to use at their discretion.

The second factor was the much maligned 4-2-5 scheme, with the Ram and Bandit positions, favored by previous Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning. For those not too familiar with football jargon, the Bandit was a hybrid DL/LB and the Ram was a hybrid LB/Safety. I will not get into the tactical parts, because I do not think the biggest problem with Koenning's defense was the scheme itself. However, understanding the personnel package helps put this problem into focus.

Because of the hybrid nature of the positions, the Ram and Bandit require unique and specific skill sets. The scholarship reductions made the likelihood of finding athletes with those skill sets almost nonexistent. It is one thing to ask a LB to line up at DE for a few plays or packages, or occasionally ask a DE to drop back in coverage. It is an entirely different thing to ask him to consistently play both, more or less at the same time. It is frustrating and difficult for a player to be unable to fully dedicate himself to one position. Development, understanding, football IQ, and priority of focus all suffer. The negative effects double or triple when your talent is limited. And, yes, for any football geeks out there, I know I am oversimplifying some of this. It is a blog -€” not an advanced scouting report.

Add those two obstacles to three years of horrendous fundamentals and poor habits allowed to go unchecked (the most damning culprit of Koenning's tenure!), and you get a perfect storm that crushed both the defensive line and linebacking corps. With other holes on the roster needing attention, such as finding the right athletes to fit Coach Fedora's offensive system, the coaching staff just could not add the defensive depth it needed for the team to be a serious competitor.

If I have lost you, stick with me a little longer. Below is the numerical year-by-year break down of the listed Defensive End, Defensive Tackle, Defensive Line, Bandit, LB, and Bandit positions according to Goheels.com. Over the years, an occasional Bandit found a "home" with the LB or D-line (Shakeel Rashad spent his first few years as a Bandit), but this provides the basic premise. Also, notice how the ambiguous "Defensive Line" label is now used less frequently. The Ram is not relevant to the front seven discussion.

Year

DE

DT

DL

Bandit.

LB

2012

8

4

4

3

6

2013

6

6

5

4

8

2014

4

4

6

3

13

2015

7

5

3

0

14

2016

9

6

1

0

14

As you can see the 2014 season was a bleak one for the defensive line, and the results reinforced this issue. In truth, Fedora did not give the defensive line much attention in the recruiting process until 2015, in large part because he both inherited and solidified a young group in his first two years that continues to pay dividends today. Mikey Bart, Dajuan Drennon, Nazair Jones, and Junior Gnonkonde all were mainstays over the past three years. All but Gnonkonde return this season.

In fact, last season, 12 different defensive lineman averaged at least .9 tackles per game. Nine of them return. While there were problems with consistent rotations and remaining healthy last year, this UNC D-line may provide Fedora with the most experience and depth during his tenure. Which is weird when you consider there is only one senior on the D-line this season. Whether or not it is the most talented is a discussion for a different day. See the current DE/DT two-deep depth chart below.

DE

DE

DT

DT

Dujaun Drennon (JR)

Mike Bart (SR)

Robert Dinkins (SO)

Nazair Jones (JR)

Malik Carney (SO)

Jason Stowbridge (RFR)

Jeremiah Clarke (SO)

Jalen Dalton (SO)

Aaron Crawford (RFR)

Tyler Powell (JR)



That disastrous 2014 season, along with 2015, also saw the pure linebacker position receive renewed emphasis. Unfortunately, that renewed emphasis meant a large number of freshmen in 2014 (five pure, two of whom were redshirted), that when coupled with the defensive line depth, added up to ineptitude of historical proportions. Even more unfortunate, of those 13 LBs in 2014, five did not return for last season for reasons including health problems, academic ineligibility, or position changes. Building stability has been difficult.

The bad news is once again five linebackers do not return from last season's team, including longtime Tar Heels Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. There is not a single senior LB on the roster -€” hence, why there are so many questions and so much trepidation. See the current two-deep depth chart for the linebackers below. Remember, J.B. Copeland is a JUCO transfer. That is some serious youth.

Sam LB

Mike LB

Will LB

Cayson Collins (SO)

Andre Smith (SO)

Cole Holcomb (JR)

Ayden Bonilla (SO)

Jonathan Smith (FR)

J.B. Copeland (JR)



Yet, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. With the recruiting restrictions lifted, the past two seasons have provided the deepest and most talented linebacker pool UNC has seen in at least the past five years. Those freshmen from 2014 are now juniors or sophomores. The 2015 class did not have to learn a new system or break bad habits since Chizik's system is all they have been taught. They all want to prove they are better than what they displayed against Clemson and Baylor.

In addition, UNC is looking forward to adding more complexity to their play calling after keeping it shockingly bland last season. This will benefit a young LB corps by helping mask youthful deficiencies and indiscretions. With more arrows in their quiver, the defense can bring a safety into the box to help against the run, or blitz a CB from the corner to open up a pass rushing lane. They can stunt at the line and give multiple defensive looks to confuse the opposing QB and O-line. All of this also will help release some pressure on a defensive line that has really struggled to provide anything resembling a consistent pass rush. UNC was unable to consistently and successfully perform any of these actions last season.

Look, nobody has any idea what this season has in store for the 2016 Tar Heels. Finishing 11-1 is arguably as likely as finishing 8-4. However, I do not remember a time in recent memory that the front seven had as much (unproven) potential as this one does. For the first time in five years, UNC has a fully stocked roster. Youth, talent, and experience litter the D-line and LB positions. The transition from the 4-2-5 to the more traditional 4-3 is almost complete. Anticipated complexity and creativity in the play calling provide more options than we probably could even understand. A perfect storm of circumstances created the defensive abyss of the past few years. UNC appears to finally have a charted a course to leave that storm behind.