We turn our attention to the defensive side of the football, but stay in the trenches with the unit that has probably added the most talent and depth overall since Mack Brown’s arrival back to Chapel Hill in 2018. If the Tar Heel defense is going to be able to take another step forward this season like many expect, it will be led by improvement from a front four that must do a better job of winning the one-on-one battles up front. The good news is, they have plenty of talent that will be looking to help them do just that.
It starts with the edge rushers, a group that will have a healthy combination of veterans and young talent. Tomon Fox will lead the unit, as he returns for his super senior season after an extremely productive first four years in Tar Heel blue. He enters this season tied for fifth in program history in sacks and seventh in tackles for a loss, with his most productive seasons in both categories coming under Mack Brown’s staff. Last year was easily his most consistent season, but there were times, especially in run defense where he would disappear. If he can just add a little bit more consistency to his game, he has the chance to be one of the ACC’s top pass rushers this season.
Joining him as a returning starter from a year ago is fellow super senior Tyrone Hopper. He returns after starting ten games a year ago in the most productive season of his career. The problem for Hopper is that, while he was on the field a lot, he wasn’t nearly as effective as he probably should have been, leading to him being taken out of his starting role. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for this defense, but it would preferably be out of a rotational role.
Sophomore Des Evans looks like the main guy amongst the edge rushers that could take a major step forward this season. He is up 30 lbs. since arriving to Carolina and showed some nice flashes as a true freshman that he will hope to build on in 2021. His name has been mentioned multiple times already this offseason when talking about the players that Brown thinks could win some of those one-on-one battles in the trenches. He started three games late in the season a year ago and those were the games he thrived in the most, so Evans could be looking at a possible breakout season.
Junior Chris Collins is back after making four starts a year ago in his own right, but, similar to Hopper, wasn’t as productive as he probably would have liked. Unlike Hopper, though, Collins’ best moments have come in pass rushing situations and that is an area that the Tar Heels could utilize him in again this season. The issue is he is a liability in run defense and that will probably keep him from being more than a rotational player on the edge again this season unless he can prove more valuable there.
Sophomore Kaimon Rucker is the sleeper to earn a starting role this season after surprising a bit as a true freshman. He played both on the edge and at the 4i-tech spot last year and could split time there again this year. There may be more of an effort to get him on the edge, though, with the added depth that is in place at the 4i spots, and that would be a huge boost for the team to have someone with his complete skill set on the edge. At the least, Rucker will have a major rotational role on the edge this season.
Redshirt freshman Ethan West will move to the edge after coming in from high school as inside linebacker last year. He saw action in two games on special teams a year ago before missing the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury. The move to the edge probably won’t net him a ton of snaps this season, but he will have a chance to make an impact again on special teams this year.
Two true freshmen will look to push for reps on the edge, as well. Trevion Stevenson is the more likely of the two to have an impact this season just based off of his size, as Gabriel Stephens simply must add more weight before he can worry about moving up the depth. With the depth that the Tar Heels have at the position, though, both of these players will probably be restricted to special teams roles in their first season.
When you move inside, you have to start with Raymond Vohasek, the senior anchor of the Tar Heel defensive line. He lived in the backfield a year ago on his way to earning All-ACC honorable mention, finishing second on the team in tackles for a loss with 8.5. Vohasek may not be the most productive player in the conference, but he is one he always seems to find himself causing some sort of havoc up front for this Tar Heel defense. He’s another guy who could be one of the favorites to win those one-on-one battles up front and take some pressure off of the scheme to create those negative plays.
Junior Tomari Fox returns after starting all 12 games a year ago. His production speaks for itself and like Vohasek, there is a lot of consistency to his game, as he finished fifth on the team in tackles and all but one game with a tackle last year. The biggest problem for Fox last year was that he wore down as the season went along, getting pushed around a little late in the season, failing to register a tackle for a loss or a sack in the final six games of the season. With more depth in place this season, hopefully he will be able to stay fresh and allow him to produce the way that he did in the first half of the season in 2020 for an entire season.
Sophomore Myles Murphy will hope to increase his role from a year ago after showing some nice flashes in the snaps he saw a year ago. When talking about the defensive line at ACC media days, Murphy was the name that came up a lot and leads us to believe he will have an expanded role this season.
Redshirt freshman Kedrick Bingley-Jones joins the fray up front after missing all of last year with an Achilles injury. Last winter, he was the defensive freshman that was talked about the most and coming out of high school, he was looked at as a player that was a perfect fit for this defensive front. Don’t be shocked to hear his name a lot this fall now that he’s expected to be back at full strength.
Sophomore Clyde Pinder Jr. will be another player that will hope to have a healthier second season in Chapel Hill. While he may have played in seven games last season, it took him a while to get going after he missed the first four games last year. He could compete for that backup nose tackle job in fall camp, a position that the Tar Heels are needing to find depth at this season.
Junior Jahlil Taylor is also back, but it comes off a year where he saw his role reduced as the year went along. Going into the spring, the thought was that his role was going to be limited once again, but he was one of the standouts amongst the group in the spring and will look to battle to be a part of the rotation at nose tackle again this season.
Both true freshmen early enrollees look to have a good shot to earn reps this fall, as well. Jahvaree Ritzie was the most talked about freshman of the spring and backed it up with a strong performance in the spring game. Meanwhile, the extremely talented Keeshawn Silver was banged up a bit in the spring, but should be good to go for the fall. Ritzie no doubt will have a chance at a rotational role this year and barring a setback, Silver probably will be in the rotation along the line, too.
The deeper depth here is strong, as well. Sophomore Kevin Hester Jr. is back in the middle after playing some garbage time snaps a year ago and thriving in those. With the depth that is in front of him, though, there might not be much room for him to climb the depth chart. Sophomore Kristian Varner has added the weight to his frame, but might be in a similar position to Hester Jr. when it comes to climbing the depth chart.
Three walk-on’s are expected to be a part of the unit this season, as well. Junior Alex Nobles and redshirt freshman Braden Hunter are back on the edge, while redshirt freshman Colby Doreen will be the only walk-on interior defensive lineman this year.
This unit has added a ton of depth since Mack Brown has arrived back to Carolina and now the talent is starting to come with it. If the Tar Heels can see some of these guys begin to breakout, there is a chance that this defense could make a big jump. The key to that, though, will be to find that players down there that can win the one-on-one battles, something they haven’t been able to do since the Butch Davis era.
Projected Depth Chart:
#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.
#42 Tyrone Hopper, Sr.