Updated: Aug 29, 2019
As we get ready to begin fall camp, it’s time for another one of the Heel Tough Blog’s exclusive in-depth position previews. The series will take a look at every player on the Tar Heels 2019 roster and tell you the impact we expect each to have and give you the projected depth chart position-by-position. We continue with a look at the Tar Heels 2019 defensive line.
Last year was a step in the right direction for the Tar Heels on the defensive side of the trenches, as the position that has been the programs crown jewel for most of its existence tries to get back to where it has been in the past. After a spring that was riddled with injuries along the defensive line, the unit is nearly fully healthy and will headman a push by this 2019 defense to debunk the stigma of the Tar Heels porous defenses in the past few seasons.
The 2019 defensive line will feature three veteran starters headlined by senior Aaron Crawford’s return to starting lineup after missing all but ten snaps of the 2018 season. Crawford will handle the nose tackle, or 0-tech, duties in Jay Bateman’s 3-man defensive front. Crawford has the size and strength to take on double teams and has the mentality to be that run-stopper in the middle of the Tar Heel defense, something they haven’t really had since Sylvester Williams left campus. Everything coming out of camp around Crawford is extremely positive, so there is no reason to think that he won’t have a big senior season.
The most talked about member of the defensive line in the preseason isn’t Crawford, though. Senior Jason Strowbridge will move from his 3-tech defensive tackle position that he played a year ago to the 4i-tech defensive end spot that fits his skillset much better. Last year, while playing out of position, Strowbridge still managed to rack up 8.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. With the Tar Heels new scheme being a bit more aggressive, and Strowbridge at a more natural position for his athleticism and skillset, he has a chance to finish his Tar Heel career with a big senior season and possible All-ACC honors.
The third starter on the defensive line for the Tar Heels in 2019 will another veteran starter whose role has changed a bit from a year ago. Tomon Fox enters his senior year still looking for that breakout season that many have been waiting to see from him. Fox will remain at a defensive end spot this season, contrary to the early beliefs coming out of camp, but he will stand up for a bulk of the snaps he sees. Fox told reporters during spring practice that he was in a two-point stance 95% of the time. Even with that, though, the expectation is that he will play the 4i-tech opposite of Strowbridge where his speed should cause issues for guards and tackles with the inside leverage he’ll have lining up on the inside shoulder of the tackle. Fox racked up 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks on just 27 total tackles last year, but with a little more freedom and responsibility in the new scheme, those numbers should improve in 2019.
There were some concerns about the lack of experience that the depth had entering the spring, but there is a lot of optimism around the group as we close training camp. Sophomore Xach Gill has played limited snaps in his first two seasons, but he has been a standout so far this offseason in the new defensive scheme. Gill played defensive tackle at Wake Forest High School in Wake Forest, NC and caused major issues for interior linemen, something that he will be able to do out of the 4i-tech position he’ll play this season. The former 3✮ prospect has put together a strong offseason, now can it translate to the field in what will be an expanded rotational role this season?
Another young player who has taken a major step forward this offseason is redshirt freshman nose tackle Jahlil Taylor. Last year, Taylor played in two games before redshirting, racking up three total tackles and a tackle for loss, but now looks poised to take a big step forward and backup Aaron Crawford this season. At 6’0 and 300 lbs., Taylor has the size and his strong offseason shows he will be a valuable rotational piece of this 2019 defensive line.
Behind Taylor is talented true freshman Brant Lawless-Sherrill, who is ready to go after having to sit out last year after he transferred from Tennessee following spring camp. The staff was pleased with Lawless-Sherrill in the spring and he is another player that has been mentioned amongst the group of players progressing well in training camp, as well. The former 4✮ defensive tackle should push for snaps at nose tackle or possibly even defensive end with his athleticism.
Defensive end isn’t quite as deep as the defensive tackle position, but there is some guys to be excited about. Redshirt freshman Lancine Turay came out of last season weighing just 245 lbs., leading some to believe he would be moved to linebacker when Jay Bateman took over. However, Turay put on 35 lbs. in the offseason and now weighs around 280 lbs., the perfect size needed to play that 4i-tech defensive end. Turay hasn’t been talked about as much in terms of improvement this offseason as Gill and Taylor, but he is another player who has shown signs of growth according to those around the team. Turay should settle nicely into a rotational role in his second season on campus.
The final returning scholarship player from a year ago is junior Nolan DeFranco. He has been a full participant in fall camp after suffering an injury in the spring game and will help to provide some depth at the defensive end positions again this season. DeFranco will also be an important part of the special teams unit this season.
Sophomore Quiron Johnson earned a scholarship from Mack Brown and his staff over the summer after a move to the defensive side of the football side of the football in the spring. Johnson will likely be buried on the depth chart at nose tackle, but could have a shot to provide some reps on special teams.
Five scholarship players joined the team in the fall after signing with the Tar Heels 2019 class, including three from the state of Georgia. Tomari Fox, the brother of Tomon, seems like the freshman most likely to see snaps in the fall, but he still has his work cut out for him to earn a significant role this season. Fox has the size and raw talent to make that impact, but the question is, are there snaps to be had this season with so much depth along the defensive line?
Kevin Hester Jr. joined the Tar Heels back in June and is a guy that is seen an upside project for the Tar Heels. Hester played just one year of high school football at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, GA, but has the length and athleticism to be impactful with the help of TIm Cross and his staff. That athleticism may allow him to earn some reps on special teams this season, but it's tough to see him contributing much on the defensive side of the football.
The third Georgia-based true freshman on the defensive line is Hiram, GA’s Kristian Varner. Another guy who may take some time to reach his ceiling, like Hester, Varner has enough athleticism to make an impact on special teams in his first year. With the amount of talent that is scheduled to depart after the 2019 season, both Hester and Varner are likely waiting until 2020 to have bigger impacts defensively.
Sophomore Raymond Vohasek will also be looking for time at defensive end this season. Vohasek’s junior college experience could give him the edge over his fellow 2019 class teammates, but with the depth chart ahead of him, it still seems unlikely that he will have a major impact this season.
The final fall enrollee is true freshman Wisdom Asaboro. The Charlotte-area product will likely spend the year rehabbing from an injury suffered in his junior year in high school. There will also be a steep learning curve for him after he played at a lower level of prep football and reclassified from the 2020 class back in December. Asaboro has the talent to play any of the three positions along the defensive line, it will be about finding where he best fits when he is able to return to full health.
Projected Depth Chart
#55 Jason Strowbridge, Sr.
#90 Xach Gill, So.
#91 Nolan DeFranco, Jr.
#51 Raymond Vohasek, So.
#98 Kevin Hester Jr., Fr.