This was a unit that, heading into last season, may have had the most questions surrounding it. Now, just a year later, there are still a few questions about depth, but this unit contains one of the country’s top linebackers and another solid starter alongside him. Combined with the success of the defensive line, this unit helped the Tar Heels take a major step forward in run defense, holding opponents to just 143.8 yards on the ground a year, the first time since 2013 that a Tar Heel defense allowed less than 200.0 yards rushing per game. The unit returns all but one major contributor from a year ago as they look to take another step forward under co-defensive coordinators Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen.
The unit is led by preseason All-American nominee and Chuck Bednarik Award watch list member Chazz Surratt. After just one year at linebacker, he is already regarded as one of the nations best, coming off an amazing junior season. It seems like so long ago that Surratt was trying to make the switch from quarterback to linebacker and being forced into the starting lineup in the season opener against South Carolina because of Jonathan Smith’s suspension. He still has times where he gets a little too aggressive and misses some tackles, so that’s the next step for him, but he is still one of the more complete linebackers in the nation. Expect another huge season from this former quarterback who will hear his name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Alongside him will be junior Jeremiah Gemmel, who comes off of a solid season at inside linebacker. He started all thirteen games a year ago and finished second on the team in tackles and had a strong season as a run stopper in the middle of the Tar Heel defense. Gemmel needs to improve in pass coverage, but he should have another solid season at inside linebacker as the team looks to take another step.
While the Tar Heels will have plenty of proven talent in the middle of the linebacking corps, the team will have to replace do-it-all linebacker Dominique Ross, who filled so many roles for the team late in the season. The good news is, the secondary has much more depth this season, meaning we will likely see more nickel and dime packages than a year ago. There will still be times, though where we will see three linebacker sets on the field in 2020 and the favorite to take reps here will be sophomore Khadry Jackson. He was recruited by the staff for this role specifically a year ago and he made a nice impression in the extended reps in the final two games of the season. Jackson might not be ready to handle covering slot receivers like Ross did a year ago, but he is still a strong coverage linebacker and he looks ready to provide help in the run game. At the least, one should expect Jackson to see more defensive reps this season, but with his experience edge in the system, one should expect him to start whenever the team eventually takes the field.
While Jackson looks like he’ll win the job at the hybrid linebacker/safety spot, true freshman Cedric Gray could also have a chance to factor in here. Gray early enrolled in January in an attempt to earn some early reps and while the cancellation of spring camp hurts the chances of that happening, there is still a chance that Gray can make some noise in fall camp. He was another player that the staff recruited specifically to play this position and his success at wide receiver in high school makes him an even more attractive fit here. Don’t be shocked if he sees some significant playing time this season, especially on special teams.
Sophomore Eugene Asante shined in the final four games of the season a year ago and will lead a solid group of backups in the middle of the linebacking corps. Asante is a strong, athletic tackler and there is a chance that he can continue to expand on his role from a year ago. With what we've heard from the staff this offseason, there is a lot of confidence that Asante can be a big part of the offense.
Another guy who will have a chance to earn reps this fall is true freshman Ethan West. Although West didn’t get the advantage he was hoping to by enrolling in January, being in the weight program prior to the shutdown was still helpful. The talent is there for this former 3✮ and the goal this year needs to be for him to establish a good reputation for next season when Surratt graduates. This is another name that could play a big role on special teams this year.
The depth at the hybrid linebacker/safety spot is not nearly as strong. Another true freshman, Cameron Roseman-Sinclair may have a chance to earn some reps in this role this season. In his final two seasons at the high school level, he played in-the-box for a majority of the time and showed that he has a great mix of coverage and run stopping skills. If he is needed, he has the skill set to thrive here.
Matthew Flint announce earlier this offseason that he will not play this season and instead will help coach the linebackers alongside Tommy Thigpen.
Five walk-ons are expected to be a part of the team again this season in sophomore Dilan Gonzalez, redshirt freshmen Jake Harkleroad and Parks Cochrane and two true freshmen in Jalen Brooks and Braden Hunter.
Projected Depth Chart
#21 Chazz Surratt, Sr.
#24 Ethan West, Fr.
#49 Parks Cochrane, RFr.
#36 Jalen Brooks, Fr.
#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Jr.
#24 Eugene Asante, So.
#48 Dilan Gonzalez, So.
#43 Braden Hunter, Fr.
# 8 Khadry Jackson, So.
#33 Cedric Gray, Fr.
# 3 Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, Fr.
#26 Jake Harkleroad, RFr.