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UNC football’s 2017 defense is filled with playmakers

With overwhelming offensive turnover, Carolina’s defensive stalwarts will be counted on to hold down the fort, and they are more than up to the task.

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Not a single Tar Heel was voted on the 2017 All-ACC Preseason Team. This might seem like a reasonable conclusion to people with only a passing knowledge of UNC Football, because all of UNC’s offensive playmakers from last year are gone. Make no mistake, this is an insult.

UNC has several players deserving of consideration for an All-ACC position; they just haven’t been under the spotlight given the Tar Heels’ explosive offensive personality. The Tar Heel defense has been slowly but surely evolving since 2014. That year, they were historically bad. In 2015, after the hiring of Gene Chizik, they improved dramatically to being just below average. In 2016, they improved again to the point of reaching decent levels at times, though still not without a few bad games. Though Chizik has retired, the defense will look to continue that improvement and step into the forefront as the offense finds a new identity, and they have the personnel to do so.

Despite what people may think because of their lack of interceptions, UNC’s secondary was a very good unit in 2016, and it might be even better in 2017. Des Lawrence parlayed a great season into a spot on an NFL 90-man roster, but his teammate M.J. Stewart had an even better one, putting to rest questions about his physicality, ability to play outside, and tackling ability while maintaining his ability to both make impact plays and shut down whomever lined up across from him.

After a ball-hawking sophomore season, Stewart failed to snag an interception in 2016, but with his instincts (11 passes defensed) and a more cohesive linebacking corps (more on this later), this is certain to change during his senior year. Stewart was being called one of the best cornerbacks in the country after his sophomore year, and he’s only gotten better. While the preseason picks for All-ACC cornerback, Florida State’s Tarvarus McFadden and Lousiville’s Jaire Alexander, are also extremely talented players, Stewart does not deserve to be 77 votes behind them.

The rest of UNC’s secondary is solid, too. Dominiquie Green has graduated, but Myles Dorn is more than capable of stepping up to the plate and joining Donnie Miles in the back after playing significant snaps in his freshman year. The second cornerback spot is less proven, but Patrice Rene flashed at times last year and clearly has the trust of the coaching staff after being given significant snaps as a true freshman. His short-term status is in doubt after the news that he underwent surgery in March (per his Instagram). Besides him, the team will look to sophomore K.J. Sails to fill that spot. Even though he is relatively untested, his teammates in the secondary should have him covered.

UNC’s linebacking corps returns all three starters: Andre Smith, Cayson Collins, and Cole Holcomb. The trio combined in 2016 for 15 tackles for loss and 8 pass breakups. Though they started out the season unsteady, probably due to Smith and Holcomb being sophomores and taking some time to get used to being the centerpieces of a defense, by the end of the season, the linebacking corps were playing very well in all aspects of the game.

At the beginning of the season, running backs were catching screens and tearing them up at will. Over time, they were able to become a more cohesive unit, and turned the clear problem group into a strength. Holcomb led the team in tackles with 116, and Smith was just one behind. Smith in particular was a force from the middle, with 6 tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble on the season. Beyond those impact stats, his range and athleticism had been lacking for a long time from the Carolina middle linebacker spot.

Plays that went for 10 yards in years prior were often stopped for 5 in the latter half of 2016 because of Smith’s ability to cover the field. Smith should look to parlay that ability into a huge season for the Heels. And yet, he only got 9 votes for the linebacker position from the media. If that’s what they think of him and his crew in the middle, they’re in for a big surprise.

UNC’s defensive front is the unit with the most questions coming into 2017 after a poor year in run defense. The line lost its best player, Nazair Jones, to the NFL Draft, which certainly doesn’t help it. It is undeniable, though, that those who remain are trending upwards. Jalen Dalton put together a nice year alongside Jones on the inside, and the hope is that he can now be the leader of a similar relationship this year instead of the sidekick. Jeremiah Clarke and Aaron Crawford have had good moments at defensive tackle, even if they aren’t as explosive as Dalton, and have at least shown the ability to stick to a block and maintain discipline instead of being blown off. They are not world-beaters at the position, but they are certainly adequate.

More questions abound at the defensive end position, which was certainly the team’s weakest position after the linebacking corps solidified. The loss of effort man Mikey Bart will be felt, but not enough attention is being paid, perhaps, to the personnel that the team will gain. First and foremost is redshirt freshman Tomon Fox, who impressed the coaches enough as a true freshman to start over veterans Dajaun Drennon and Tyler Powell, and had a monster game against Illinois before going down for the season to injury. If he can return to that form, that’s a big addition to the rotation for the Heels.

Drennon is no slouch himself. He only played the team’s last 5 games due to injury and did not really settle in, but has a good track record (10.5 tackles for loss in his first two years) and was one of the standouts from the UNC Spring Game. On the other side, 2016 sack leader Malik Carney (5.5 sacks) will try to maintain that title, which will take a lot more this time around. And these are just the people in contention for the starting role. UNC’s defensive line is going to go deep this year, with CarolinaBlue reporting that it would not be a surprise to see the Heels go 12 deep on the line because of all the talent there.

Even if you take the pessimistic approach and believe that no player on the line stands out that much, a rotation that deep without a big drop in quality will take its toll on opposing offenses, and the best players on the line will take advantage. While UNC’s defensive line might not be made up of the best players in the ACC, I am positive that they’ll have more than six combined votes for the four positions when real All-ACC voting comes around.

UNC’s defense is being underrated because it’s never been in the spotlight. This is the season that all changes, and I for one am excited to see them prove the nation wrong.