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UNC Football position preview: Linebackers

UNC returns all three starting linebackers from last season. Can they get a defensive stop when it matters most?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we took an early look at UNC’s defensive line. Today we’ll do a similar preview of the linebackers. It’s important to note that practice is only a week old, so some of the information is likely to change (especially on the d-line where anywhere from 8 to 10 different Heels could see significant playing time).

Heading into the season, North Carolina returns all three starting linebackers from last year in Andre Smith, Cayson Collins, and Cole Holcomb. That’s usually a significant development for any team, but it carries a special importance for UNC. This is the first time UNC has returned it’s entire linebacking corps since Larry Fedora scrapped the frustrating 4-2-5 favored by Vic Koenning for the more traditional 4-3 installed by former DC Gene Chizik.

Travis Hughes graduated in 2014. Jeff Shoettmer and Shakeel Rashad followed suit after that memorable 2015 season. As a result, Smith, Collins, and Holcomb stepped up and gained valuable on-the-job training in 2016. That training will be put to the test this season as they all return to patrol the middle of the field.

Like the defensive line, the linebackers return key playmakers with a wealth of depth throughout the position. Holcomb recorded 115 tackles last season and Smith received credit for 113. Both of those numbers led the team. Collins was seventh on the team with 60 tackles. In other words, over 25% of North Carolina’s tackling production was provided by those three. That’s not insignificant. There is not an ACC school that returns that amount of production from one position group.

Key Losses

None. Zero. Zip. All main contributors from last season return.

Key Returns

Cayson Collins: 6’1”, 230, SR, 115 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 FF
Cole Holcomb: 6’1”, 225, JR, 60 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 5 passes defended,
Andre Smith: 6’0,” 240 , JR, 113 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 3 passes defended, 1 FF

Expectations

Andre Smith will continue his role at the middle, or “Mike”, linebacker position. This position is the de facto “quarterback” of the defense, calling out assignments and alignments.

Primarily responsible for picking up the running back or absorbing lead blocks, the Mike linebacker has to be able to give and take punishment. Listed at 240 pounds, Smith has the heft to handle both duties. He’s slightly shorter than the prototypical MLB at six foot, and his weight decreases his speed, but he makes up for it with surprising explosiveness. His diverse stat line from his sophomore season only confirms these abilities. Expect him to be the defensive catalyst for the Heels this year, and a legitimate contender for All-ACC honors if the Heels exceed expectations.

Cayson Collins is expected to return to the “Sam” linebacker position or the “strong side” LB. The Sam LB tends to line up opposite of the tight end. Stopping the run is their main priority as logic dictates that teams will run to the side with the extra blocker. However, lining up across from the tight end also means pass coverage is a regular occurrence. Regardless of the read, this linebacker is found flying all over the field.

Collins, at six-foot-one and 230 pounds is another natural fit at the position. He’s strong enough to stop the ball, but spry enough to chase the ball carrier or receiver. His 115 tackles and two forced fumbles are proof of that.

Cole Holcomb likely returns to the other outside linebacker spot. The “Will”, or weak side LB, should be your most athletic linebacker or at least the most successful in pass coverage. Stopping the run is a priority, but the Will is most likely of the three to fall into coverage, often against the slot receiver. If there is a run, they tend to be responsible for pushing the ball carrier to the inside where the meat of the defense should be waiting.

Both of these traits were evidenced last season by Holcomb’s 60 tackles and five passes defended. In fact, those five were tied for third on the team. A similar build to Collins, Holcomb stands at six-foot-one, 225 pounds. With another year under his belt, the junior is primed to be one of the surprises of the season.

The rest of the depth chart isn’t too shabby either. Junior Ayden Bonilla, and sophomores Dominique Ross and Jonathan Smith all return as viable back-ups. Their experience and familiarity with the defense and newly promoted defensive coordinator John Papuchis should provide much needed relief. Rotating fresh bodies onto the field is often an underrated aspect for a team whose offense seems to spend less than three minutes on the field.

One Burning Question

Like we did with the defensive line, I’m not asking, “Can UNC stop the run?” Last season saw modest improvement compared to the year before. I expect that to continue. If the secondary continues to be dominant, teams are still going to defer attacking the Heels on the ground, and rushing totals will still be towards the bottom of the ACC. I’m fully prepared for this. You should come to terms with this too.

Instead, the inability of the defense to get off the field when 3rd and 4th downs present themselves is more concerning. North Carolina was 12th in the ACC last season in defensive 3rd down conversions at 42.58%. The fact that they also allowed 209 3rd down attempts (second most in the conference) displays, at least partially, that they had relative success on 1st and/or 2nd downs. 4th down was even worse, where UNC ranked 13th in the conference, allowing a success rate of 66.67% on defensive 4th down conversions.

This wasn’t just a 2016 problem. North Carolina was 14th in defensive 3rd down conversions in 2015 and 2014. On fourth down, they were 13th in 2015 and 14th in 2014. Since Notre Dame is not currently a full-time member of the ACC in football, 14th is dead last. Failure in these situations have become so common, they’re now a running joke among fans.

This often manifested itself in short passing routes and/or wheel routes that directly challenged the linebackers. See the two videos below. The first is a wheel route by JMU’s Cardon Johnson on 3rd and 3.

The second video is Kendrick Foster out of the backfield for Illinois on 3rd and 6. Both of these plays resulted in touchdowns.

If the run defense continues to improve, even slightly, the Heels will be facing more medium routes and passing plays out of the backfield. That will add additional stress on a linebacking corps that has struggled to either grasp defensive schemes or cover older, more experienced players.

With an offense that already does not care about time of possession, every unnecessary prolonged defensive possession takes on a heightened importance. A year older and wiser Collins, Smith, and Holcomb will have ample opportunity to reverse the trends of the past few seasons.