Updated: Aug 20
The Tar Heels are steaming towards their August 27th opener in Kenan Stadium against Florida A&M and we at the Heel Tough Blog are getting you ready the way we always do with our in-depth positions previews. Today, we look at a unit that might not be the deepest on the team but has many fans excited, the linebackers.
Junior Cedric Gray will be the leader of the unit this season with the departure of Jeremiah Gemmel as he looks to build off of last year’s breakout season. He was the leading tackler for this team by a pretty significant margin and did some really nice things in pass coverage, including the two huge interceptions in the game against Miami. The staff wants to see him take that next step both as a player and leader and there seems to be a lot of positivity about him doing that so far this offseason. Getting more physical and becoming a more consistent tackler in space could take him to an all-conference level.
Sliding in alongside him will be sophomore Power Echols. In the reps that he played a year ago, he showed some really nice promise and the hope is that those flashes can turn into production as a starter to help replace the void that Gemmel leaves behind. Echols is a more natural fit at the linebacker spot than Gemmel was and plays with a little more of an edge, something that will hopefully allow him to shed blockers and make more plays in the run game. Chizik will also love the downhill mindset that Echols plays with, something that the linebackers in Jay Bateman’s systems just didn’t seem to do enough of, especially last season.
At the new JACK spot, grad transfer Noah Taylor will be the starter following a productive career at Virginia. He will provide a nice veteran presence in the middle of the defense in a role that fit his skillset to a tee. The role is one that will heavily rely on being able to rush the passer, but it will also be about being able to see the edge on the run while also being able to drop back into coverage. He has proven that he can do each one of these things at some point in his career and everything that has been said about him this season has been positive. Expect him to be a major contributor to this team this season both on the stats sheet and as a leader.
The depth of this unit is talented despite being a bit thinner than the team would probably like. Senior Chris Collins will slide into a backup role at that JACK position, a role that probably suits him a bit better than the starting edge rusher role that he struggled in a year ago. His experience is valuable, though, and with the pressure of having to be a starter in a role that really didn’t suit him may allow him to see some better results.
Sophomore RaRa Dillworth looked poised to take on the biggest role of his career in his third season with the team. He hasn’t been talked about as much as the first two offseasons, but he is someone whose closing speed to the ball carrier and sideline-to-sideline ability has been raved about since he’s gotten. With the expectation of more rotation at the linebacker position this season, Dillworth could be a significant contributor to this defense, especially by the end of the season.
True freshman Sebastian Cheeks is attempting to challenge Dillworth for those top rotational snaps at those two spots in the middle. The early enrollee had a nice spring for himself, closing strong with his performance in the spring game where he led the day in tackles. He has a nose for the football, something that the team needs more of and if he can prove that he can get off of blocks and play with a physical edge, there is a chance that he could see some significant snaps by the end of the season.
The deeper depth is a young, undersized group. Redshirt freshman Gabriel Stephens is back after injury cost him all of the 2021 season and will provide depth at the JACK spot. He has a much thinner frame at 225 lbs. than Taylor or Collins, but his ability to cover as a one-time corner back in the early part of his prep career could make him an option in coverage situations at some point if he can prove himself. For this season, he will likely spend the majority of his time on special teams.
True freshman Malaki Hamrick was listed as a JACK on the official roster that was released, but he is someone that could be used at inside linebacker if needed after playing there as a senior in high school. Adding to his frame in the weight room will be important for him, but he is another guy who could make his impact felt on special teams this year.
Fellow true freshman Deuce Caldwell was the late enrollee for this group meaning that he is behind the ball a bit compared to all of the other scholarship players in the fall. He will probably have to make his name on special teams this season, but with the depth being as thin as it is here, there is a possibility that a couple of injuries could force him into a bigger role.
The group will feature six walk-ons, five of which are inside linebackers. Junior Jake Harkleroad sophomores Jalen Brooks and Colby Doreen and redshirt freshman Gibson Macrae are all returning from last season. Sophomore Milad Aghaiepour and true freshman CJ Murphy will be the newcomers to this walk-on group. The hope is that none of these guys would have to see major reps.