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UNC football: 2017 is a good look at the future, part II

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The long-awaited sequel!

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-North Carolina vs Baylor Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I previously broke down the youth movement on offense that was taking place with injuries to Stanton Truitt, Bentley Spain, et al here. As news broke later that day that the Heels had also lost tackle William Sweet, then the Duke game ended the career of Austin Proehl, I became gunshy to follow up with a look at the defense.

Well, fast-forward three weeks, ‘disappointing’ is now ‘ghastly’, and a 1-5 record comes with the following previously-unthinkable line: Carolina is a 4-point home underdog to Virginia. Things can’t be worse, so this is now a safe space.

While not as pronounced as the one on offense, the defense is getting a youth movement of its own. Gone are stalwarts Donnie Miles and Andre Smith, and versatile lineman Tyler Powell joins them to ensure one key cog at each level is out. DT’s Jalen Dalton and Jordon Riley have missed significant time, as has maligned junior corner Corey Bell.

This has been the stronger unit on the 2017 Tar Heels, mostly because it hasn’t been completely decimated by injury—and there is still some upperclassman presence.

Defensive Line

Aside from Powell, the only member of the front four set to graduate is Dajaun Drennon, who has just 2.5 TFL since he was a sophomore.

What does that mean for the future? 2018-19 could be fun. At end, Malik Carney has emerged as a bona-fide star with 7 TFL and 2.5 sacks this season. Both Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper have shown flashes as redshirt freshmen, each has registered a sack. Fox, in particular, has seemingly been around the ball more than anyone on the team. Add true freshman Jake Lawler next year, and the Heels have the most athletic two-deep at end they’ve had since the days of Quinton Coples and Kareem Martin.

Allen Cater hasn’t seen the field much, but he and others of his ilk should provide depth and have nice potential.

At tackle, Dalton has emerged as a beast, and the cynic in me says the junior will go pro. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

If I am, he and Jeremiah Clarke would be senior anchors on a deep 2018 unit—which would include emerging star rush tackle Jason Strowbridge, and hoss nose Aaron Crawford as juniors, followed by Xach Gill and the aforementioned Riley as sophomores.

The departure of Marlon Dunlap was killer here, as it forced Gill and Riley to burn their redshirts. At a position where its so easy to get rolled up by an O-lineman (see: Powell) the Heels will need to continue to recruit well here.

Linebackers

In an interesting twist, the Heels’ base 4-2-5 look has featured Cole Holcomb and underutilized senior Cayson Collins. Of course, Collins has had the lightbulb come on in a lost season, but he oozes NFL potential and will finish the season over 100 tackles if healthy. Holcomb will too, for what its worth, and he is somehow still just a junior.

As with the defensive line, the losses are limited moving forward. Andre Smith will return as a redshirt junior to join Holcomb and an emergent young talent, be it Dominique Ross, Jonathan Smith (who lost his job to Collins, it appears), Malik Robinson, or veteran Ayden Bonilla.

Ross’ lack of PT this year has been disappointing. He looked like a rangy heat-seeker on the field as a true freshman, but has not gotten consistent snaps behind the veteran linebacking unit. This evokes thoughts of the current crop of wideouts not getting time behind the Hollins/Switzer crew...except the linebackers on this team don’t make that impact.

With mega-recruit Payton Wilson (and hopefully his friend Dax Hollifield) coming in, my hope for the second half of the season is that guys like Ross, Robinson, and Smith get more chances to learn on the fly and make an impact—or risk being jumped.

Secondary

I thought I was numb to injuries on this year’s team, but Donnie Miles going down in a heap got to me. My lasting image from Carolina’s lone ACC Championship game appearance is, for some reason, 15 making plays all over the field.

Losing Miles and all-everything corner/nickel/edge rusher M.J. Stewart, the secondary takes the most shrapnel from the graduation bug.

2018 in the secondary has a MAJOR void in leadership to fill, first and foremost. After a rough start to the season, Myles Dorn is coming into his own at safety. His playmaking and thumping ability aren’t to be doubted, but we’ll see how he grows as the non-Stewart veteran in the backfield. Stepping in for Donnie Miles will likely be junior J.K. Britt, from whom I saw very good things in the Old Dominion game.

Behind them for 2017 is a major unknown, and going forward, it continues to be. D.J. Ford was lost for the year in camp, but at 6’3, 200 pounds represents an intriguing size-and-speed prospect. Someone from the second-year class of corners—Greg Ross, K.J. Sails, Patrice Rene, Myles Wolfolk (yes, outside reader, there are that many variations of the American unit of measurement in our secondary) will shift inside to nickel, someone to safety.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

My money is on Ross becoming the third safety for 2018, Wolfolk moving to the nickel, and Sails, Rene, highly-touted freshmen Tre Shaw and C.J. Cotman, and the next incoming class becoming the depth at corner.

The secondary will still be green in 2018, still lacks high-end (read: 4-5 star) talent, and will need bodies to emerge. All of the reps Rene and Sails can get will be huge for their growth, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shaw and Cotman start working into the rotation as the season winds down.


On balance, the defense has been better than its offensive counterparts. With more juniors and seniors staying healthy and contributing, this shouldn’t come as any surprise.

2018 and 2019 paint a rosy picture for both sides of the ball, at least in comparison to this year. One doesn’t have to squint to see a two-deep that is either experienced, talented, or both. Here’s hoping (again) that 2017 was (yes, I realize there’s half a season left) just the perfect storm from hell.