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UNC football: Who is poised to break out on defense in 2017?

With a ton of offensive talent to replace, the onus is on the defense to take a step forward.

NCAA Football: North Carolina vs Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been Carolina’s strong suit under Larry Fedora, but there’s reason to expect good things for the 2017 UNC defense. Although Gene Chizik has left the building, John Papuchis should maintain the status quo. Perhaps Papuchis will even bring a little more edge to a very vanilla 4-3.

Chizik engineered an immediate turnaround from an atrocious defense that allowed 39 points per game 2014 to back-to-back seasons under 25. His fix was not a quick one, as he essentially retaught fundamentals and took a grossly underdeveloped unit back to a nice baseline.

Pap should benefit from the work done the past two years. Though standouts such as Nazair Jones and Desmond Lawrence have to be replaced, there is a lot of talent returning. There’s no need to mention Andre Smith and M.J. Stewart, as they have been (and hopefully will continue to be) standouts.

If the Heels can get impact performances from a few younger guys, the defense is set to take off. Who could those guys be?

DE Tomon Fox

Fox was poised to be a breakout player last year but had a knee injury sidelined him after just two games. He had his first career sack against Illinois and figures to be the type of speedy, explosive rush end the Carolina defense has lacked since...Donte Paige-Moss?

Fox figures to slot behind 2016 breakout performer Malik Carney, who was himself named a “player to watch for 2017” by ESPN’s David Hale. Expect him to get major snaps early and often.

LB Jonathan Smith

Currently most famous as the lead in the failed Zamir White recruitment, Jonathan Smith is another redshirt freshman coming off of a season-ending injury.

Like Fox, Smith showed impact potential on the field in 2016. In a perfect world, a healthy Smith pushes Andre Smith to the MIKE linebacker role, where both could thrive as sideline-to-sideline terrors.

S Myles Dorn

North Carolina v Miami Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Well, we accidentally hit a theme of “second year players ready to step forward” here, but with good reason: I am higher on Dorn than any ACC safety not named Derwin James.

Dorn averaged 2 12 tackles a game playing behind Dominique Green last year. With Donnie Miles, Carolina should boast an extremely physical pair of safeties—if they can cover the pass, look out.