The Tar Heels only have to replace one full-time starter from a year ago in linebacker Chazz Surratt. While it always hurts to have to replace someone who was as productive as Surratt was in the last two seasons, there is plenty of confidence in his replacement and some optimism in this 2021 linebacker corps as a whole.
Senior Jeremiah Gemmel will return as the leader of the unit and the defense overall. He has been a steady force in the middle of the defense for the last two seasons alongside Surratt and looks ready to take that next step to being the primary man in the middle of the Tar Heel defense. Surratt’s departure and the linebacker room around him should allow him to play a more downhill role than he has in the past, something that plays to the strengths of his game just a little bit more than the role he’s held the last couple of seasons. Having someone as cerebral as Gemmel in the middle of this defense is one of the main reasons that this Tar Heel defense has a great chance to take that next step this season.
Replacing Surratt as a starter will be junior Eugene Asante, who got his first career start in the Orange Bowl and flashed some future star potential. Coming out of high school, he was a guy that was felt to be a great fit in this Tar Heel defensive scheme and this feels like a situation where he has just been waiting for his opportunity to assume the starting job. There is a ton of upside here and with his skillset, he has a chance to be an upgrade over Surratt when it’s all said and done.
This is the one position where the staff has basically said there won’t be much rotation this season because of just how inexperienced the group will be. The most snaps taken by any one of the remaining inside linebackers is six taken by sophomore Cedric Gray, who will be the elder statesmen of the trio that will battle for the backup spots behind Gemmel and Asante. He was a key special teams member a year ago for the team and entered the spring with a chance to earn that primary backup role. He had a good spring game to close what appeared to be a very solid spring for him, but the question is whether or not he can do enough to keep himself ahead of the highly touted true freshman duo that is behind him.
RaRa Dillworth is the early enrollee that everyone was talking about and he proved why with a strong spring for himself. He capped that off with a nice performance in the spring where he showed off his sideline-to-sideline ability and speed in open space, as he made a few nice plays on the football. Add in the fact that he might be the best coverage linebacker in the room and there is reason to believe that he will have a chance to earn some reps as soon as this season.
While Dillworth had a great spring for himself, Power Echols spring may have been even better. Both guys were raved about for being ahead of the curve throughout the month of April, but Echols was the clear standout in the spring game. He was simply all over the place, making a handful of nice plays in the backfield and showing his ability as a volume tackler that could fit perfectly in the middle of this Tar Heels defense in the next couple of seasons. With his nose for the football, it may be too difficult to keep him off the field, as well.
Sophomore walk-on Jake Harkleroad leads the group of non-scholarship players at the position and is a guy that Jay Bateman is apparently rather high on for a walk-on. While he likely won’t have to play any sort of significant role, he might be more prepared than people realize if injuries were to set in. He should be able to contribute to the Tar Heels in a special teams role in the meantime.
Joining him as walk-on’s for the unit will be redshirt freshman Jalen Brooks, who returns for his second season with the program, and first-year freshman Gibson Macrae.
This unit is the one that might have the most concern when it comes to depth because of the inexperience. The two true freshmen showed in the spring that there is reason to believe that if they were needed, they could hold their own and potentially even surprise a few people. If everyone can stay healthy, though, the duo of Gemmel and Asante might have a chance to be one of the best in the ACC.
Projected Depth Chart
#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Sr.
#23 Power Echols, Fr.
#45 Jake Harkleroad, So.
#53 Gibson Macrae, Fr.
# 7 Eugene Asante, Jr.
# 8 RaRa Dillworth, Fr.
#33 Cedric Gray, So.
#36 Jalen Brooks, RFr.