The Tar Heels’ defense took a major step forward in their first year under Jay Bateman and the defensive line was one of the main reasons why. With a better push up front, the Tar Heels run defense allowed just 143.8 yards per game, the lowest mark for a Tar Heel defense since 2012. The unit will see some major changes in 2020, as two starters of the four starters will have to be replaced. Helping to do that will be an extremely talented group of freshmen that will be looked to to make an impact early. They combine with a returning group of players that will be looking for new leaders and standouts that must grow up quickly with the early tests the Tar Heel defense will receive.
Leading that group of veterans will be senior RUSH end Tomon Fox. He will be the Tar Heels leading returning pass rusher and while he had a big season a year ago, the team will be looking for consistency from him after he disappeared at times last season. Fox’s ability to make an impact from both the two and three-point stance is a huge advantage and allows the defense to use a multitude of packages, something Bateman likes to do with his defense. If that consistency develops, Fox has the downhill pass-rushing ability to be the first Tar Heel pass rusher to reach the double-digit sack mark since Kareem Martin in 2013.
Junior defensive end Raymond Vohasek split starting duties early in the year, but took over the starting job late in the season at one of the 4i-tech defensive end spots. Vohasek’s physicality was helpful in slowing down the run, especially in the final three games of the season. The goal for him has to be to build on the momentum that he gained late last year, something that was likely enough to earn him the starting job.
At nose guard, Aaron Crawford has to be replaced after an extremely productive senior season where he developed into one of the country's best run-stopping defensive tackles. Sophomore Jahlil Taylor is his likely replacement after he showed encouraging signs a year ago as Crawford’s backup. There has to be some concern with the fact that Taylor was expected to miss the spring due injury, but the staff is confident that he will be able to transition into the starting role without many growing pains.
A pair of true freshmen will be looking to push Taylor for reps in the middle. Early enrollee Kedrick Bingley-Jones had added the weight necessary to move inside to nose tackle after arriving on campus in January, but suffered a lower-body injury in the spring that had to be surgically repaired, leaving him out indefinitely. With no official timetable in place, there is uncertainty as to whether or not he’ll be able to play at a position where the Tar Heels could definitely have benefited from his help.
That leaves Clyde Pinder Jr. as the favorite to hold down the backup job and challenge Taylor if he struggles to adjust to the starting role. Pinder’s “bull in a china shop” mentality fits well at the nose guard and he already has the size walking through the door. With the depth as thin as it is here and Bingley-Jones’ status uncertain, Pinder will have to take on a significant role out of the gate. Fall camp will be extremely important for him.
The second 4i-tech defensive end position doesn’t have much clarity, but has a lot of talented options that will vie for reps. Sophomore Tomari Fox started two games a year ago and looked solid but didn’t really jump off the page. Another year in the system and in the weight room should do wonders for Fox and give him the slight inside track to win this starting position.
He will have to hold off two redshirt freshmen who the staff were impressed by in offseason workouts. Kristian Varner was the name we heard the most this offseason and he now has the weight to go along with his technique and quickness off of the line of scrimmage. If he has a big fall camp, I think there is legitimate reason to believe he could win the starting job.
Kevin Hester Jr. also had a strong winter, but he is still raw after just one year of high school football. There is a lot of upside here, though, and if he has a strong fall, he definitely has a chance to earn some reps here.
True freshman Myles Murphy is the sleeper here. He has the size and the skills necessary to succeed as a 4i-tech defensive end. His quickness off the line of scrimmage will work well with the inside leverage and it combines well with his physicality. Fall camp will be his time to shine and with everyone else needing to have a productive fall camp, there is a chance that Murphy can earn a big role early on.
There are a few depth pieces that are still attempting to find their roles this season. Junior Xach Gill has been stuck as a tweener in his first few seasons on campus, but his veteran presence could be helpful this season, especially at nose tackle, the spot where he was able to thrive the most in high school. At the least, Gill will have to be ready to help at either nose tackle or defensive end this year because of his experience.
Sophomore Lancine Turay will provide depth at defensive end after a quiet first two seasons on campus. He added a ton of weight last offseason to get his body in the right shape to play the 4i-tech role and with a year of work at his new weight, there is a chance that Turay could settle in this fall.
The depth at RUSH end is similar to the defensive end spots with questions abound, but with a little more experience. Senior Tyrone Hopper is back for his final season at Carolina and with Allen Cater now departed, he will have a chance to take over the biggest role of his career. This role seems to fit Hopper the best of any that he has had while on campus and with his experience edge, it would be a shock not to see him have some type of increase this upcoming season.
Sophomore Chris Collins will look to get himself back into the rotation after redshirting in 2019. As a true freshman back in 2018 he showed a lot of promise and the RUSH end spot honestly fits his game better than the 4-3 defensive end role did. Last year, he was one of our picks to have a breakout season so don’t be shocked if he jumps back into the rotation and makes some noise immediately.
The wild card here is the extremely talented true freshman Desmond Evans. While the staff would probably like to see him add some weight, the talent is hard to ignore here, especially with the search for new pass-rushing specialists this offseason. Fall camp will be a chance for Evans to impress and others everything that we’ve seen from him on tape suggests he’ll do just that.
Fellow true freshman A.J. Beatty will also have a chance to impress this fall with his downhill pass rushing skills. At 6’5, 250 lbs., the staff will have to find where he fits and he will need to provide a little more help in the run game than he did in high school, but there is definitely a lot of upside here for Beatty.
Another true freshman, Kaimon Rucker will also look to be a factor early in his career at RUSH end. His athletic playing style fits the Tar Heel scheme well and his pass rushing success will be hard to deny if it can translate. There are some fundamental things that Rucker will have to clean up, but with uncertainty at the position, don’t count him out of the race to earn reps this season.
Three walk-on’s will also be a part of this group, as both sophomore Alex Nobles and redshirt freshman William Robertson are expected to return in 2020, while preferred walk-on Colby Doreen will join the group this season.
Projected Depth Chart
#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.
#42 Tyrone Hopper, Sr.
#17 Chris Collins, So.
#10 Desmond Evans, Fr.
#25 Kaimon Rucker, Fr.
#97 Alex Nobles, So.
#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.
#98 Kevin Hester Jr., RFr.
#88 Myles Murphy, Fr.
#54 A.J. Beatty, Fr.
#87 Colby Doreen, Fr.
#52 Jahlil Taylor, So.
#90 Xach Gill, Jr.
#41 Kedrick Bingley-Jones, Fr.
#55 Clyde Pinder Jr., Fr.
#56 Tomari Fox, So.
#93 Kristian Varner, RFr.
#58 Lancine Turay, So.
#40 William Robertson, RFr.