It’s no secret that Carolina’s defense couldn’t keep up with the offense last season. When the Tar Heels were still undefeated, they won five of their games by four points or less. Drake Maye had to score to keep UNC’s noses in front of App State, Miami, Duke, Virginia, and Wake Forest.
A lot of those defensive problems lay at the feet of the linebackers. Missed tackles and not enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks are the scourges of Gene Chizik’s charges. How many third and longs did you watch with your hands over your head, knowing in your heart that a first down was on the way?
The linebackers need to improve for UNC to take the next step. Fortunately, they have some returning pieces that will help them rehabilitate. Do they have the depth to last a full season? Pray that this mystery doesn’t require solving.
Noah Taylor, the Virginia graduate transfer brought in to play Jack, was unlucky health-wise, suffering a right knee injury against Pitt. He was the team’s leading sacker with 3.5, and added 28 tackles. He won’t return after exhausting his eligibility.
RaRa Dillworth, an undersized outside linebacker, transferred to East Carolina. Back-up linebackers don’t get many snaps under Gene Chizik, so most of his play was on special teams. He did have 13 tackles and a sack. Dillworth had tremendous potential, but his production will not be missed.
As mentioned, the starting inside linebackers play most of the defensive snaps. Cedric Gray returning is huge. There were rumors that he could be tempted to transfer for NIL opportunities elsewhere. But the heartbeat of the Tar Heel defense is back, and he’ll look to create havoc. Last season, he led the team in tackles (145), tackles for loss (12), and fumble recoveries (2). He had two interceptions, putting him one behind team leader Storm Duck.
Power Echols is the Robin to Echols’ Batman. He was second on the team with 103 tackles. He is a whirlwind of activity but because of his size, he has been targeted by teams with bigger offensive lines and power running games. The Notre Dame loss was a low-point. But he is a playmaker. Witness this jaw-dropping pick against Oregon in the Holiday Bowl:
Kaimon Rucker filled in for Noah Taylor in the Jack position after he was out for the season. He had 3.5 sacks in 14 games, which isn’t enough production out of a position essentially invented to hit the quarterback. He did contribute seven tackles for loss.
Challenging for snaps at Jack will be Florida State transfer Amari Gainer. His production in Tallahassee was a bit underwhelming, but it’s hoped that the switch to Gene Chizik’s system will allow him to use his frame (smaller than a power end, but extremely quick) to get after the quarterback.
Mack Brown has spoken of the team’s need to build meaningful depth, and that means giving snaps to inside linebackers not named Power or Cedric. If he’s not lying, look to see some snaps for redshirt freshman Sebastian Cheeks, Sophomore Deuce Caldwell missed time with an upper body injury, but flashed in brief appearances, most notably the blowout win against Virginia Tech, where he had a sack.
UNC’s defense has blame to share across the board. Solid linebacking will not solve all faults, nor will it be the key for its downfall. But if the defensive line can be more disruptive, and if the secondary doesn’t play 12 yards off the receivers regardless of down and distance, the linebackers are capable of cleaning up any mess beyond the line of scrimmage, and chasing down running backs sideline to sideline.
Expect Cedric Gray to have an All-ACC type season, even if his overall numbers go down. Gainer and Rucker should combine for at least ten sacks. Hopefully, Carolina will have enough double-digit leads in the fourth quarter to give some underclassmen meaningful snaps.