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Heel Tough Blog: 2023 Position Previews- DL

Jevon Moore- Getty Images

We shift to the defensive side of the football with our 2023 in-depth position previews and head back to the trenches. The Tar Heel defensive line was one of the worst in the entire country a year and it simply must show major improvement for this defense to have any chance of becoming even an average unit. The hope is that the addition of former NFL defensive line coach Ted Monachino as an assistant can help add some new ideas to the room and help develop some of the highly-regarded talent that the team has in the room.


Senior Kaimon Rucker is expected to be the leader of the unit after another really solid season of production in 2022. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss (7.0) and tied for the lead in sacks (3.5) while bouncing all over the place a year ago and not playing starting reps until the end of the season. With a more defined role at the JACK position and more snaps on the way than ever before, this should allow Rucker to be a more consistent force for the Tar Heels off the edge this season.


Opposite of him at the POWER end spot, senior Des Evans is expected to get one more crack as a starter. Last year, prior to the season-ending upper-body injury that he suffered, Evans was on track for arguably his least effective season since arriving in Chapel Hill. While he tallied 25 tackles in the eight games, only one of those was for a loss and not a single one was a sack. He has impressed the staff again this offseason, but we’ve heard the same thing for three summers now. It’s time for him to produce.


The interior of the defensive line will likely have the same starters from a year ago and they too must take a step. Senior Myles Murphy will almost certainly be the team’s primary 3-tech as he tries to recover from a disappointing 2022 campaign. After entering last year with lofty expectations, he racked up just 29 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack, a major step back from what was seen a breakout year in 2021 (38 ttkl, 9.0 TFL, 4.0 scks). The team needs him to return to the type of play that they saw from him two years ago or they need to find other options here.


The starting nose tackle job looks like it will fall to senior Kevin Hester Jr., who started nine games at the position a year ago. He led all members of the defensive front with 49 total tackles, but only had one tackle for loss and failed to register a sack. He simply has to create more havoc plays in the middle or they will have to seek other options that can.


The good news is that there is plenty of rotational options that are capable of contributing across the board and pushing for starting job. Junior Jahvaree Ritzie should be starting at the 3-tech after what he did last year while having to bounce back and forth between there and the POWER end spot, but he’ll likely instead be settling for a rotational role again. His 25 quarterback pressures were second-most on the team a year ago, trailing only Rucker. While you would like to see more tackles for loss and sack production this year, he proved last year that he can generate push. The staff simply has to find a way to get him on the field even if he isn’t a starter.


Senior Tomari Fox, who is back after serving a year-long suspension due to a banned substance, might be in a similar boat to Ritzie. The staff has been buzzing about his ability to wreak havoc out of that 3-tech spot and make plays in the backfield since fall camp started and his track record shows that translates to the field. It’s hard to imagine that if he keeps winning at the line of scrimmage in camp that he won’t be heavily involved in the rotation to start the season.


Sophomore Travis Shaw should be able to have more of an impact at the nose tackle spot this season after flashing late last year. He has shed almost 35 lbs. in the offseason and is working on building his stamina so he can be on the field more often. When he is on the field, the production is there, but he is a guy that the staff has to strategize with and find the right times to rotate him in.


Out on the edge, Florida State grad transfer Amari Gainer will rotate in behind Rucker. The staff took a flier on him in the offseason after he fell out of favor with the Seminoles at linebacker during last season. Now he’ll be able to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback, a role that he had some solid success with as a true freshman in Tallahassee back in 2019. Being the rotational option probably works best for him and could allow him to be more productive.


Sophomore Beau Atkinson will be pushing to be more than just a backup at the POWER end spot after winning that job here in fall camp. He has made a clear impression on the staff this offseason and the hope is that he can continue to build on that as we head into the season. If he can and Evans struggles again, the door could open for him to step up and give the production that the team needs at the POWER end spot.


The deeper depth of this unit is also pretty talented as well. Junior Kedrick Bingley-Jones is coming off of the healthiest year of his career, but we haven’t heard much about him this summer with all of the depth that is in front. His high school teammate, fellow junior Jacolbe Cowan, is in a similar boat after playing some late last year but being beat out by Atkinson for reps at POWER end. Both are guys that are capable of playing if needed but will likely make their biggest impacts on special teams this year.


Four true freshmen will be looking to find themselves a role at their respective positions this season. Edge rushers Jaybron Harvey and Tyler Thompson had some flashes in the spring, but the focus for them is to add weight to their frames. As for Rodney Lora and Joel Starlings, both guys are settling in after enrolling in June and will spend their time acclimating to the college game as well with maybe a role on special team being available for them at some point.


Sophomore JACK Malaki Hamrick is still a part of the team, but will likely miss the entire season after suffering a lower-body injury early in spring camp.


Two walk-ons will be a part of the defensive front this season. Junior edge rusher Colby Doreen is back for his third season with the program, while freshman Damon Bremer will be the lone walk-on for the interior of the unit.


Projected Depth Chart

NT

#98 Kevin Hester Jr.

# 4 Travis Shaw, So.

#41 Kedrick Bingley-Jones, Jr.

#92 Rodney Lora, Fr.

DT

# 8 Myles Murphy, Sr.

# 5 Jahvaree Ritzie, Jr. OR

# 0 Tomari Fox, Sr.

#94 Joel Starlings, Fr.

POWER

#10 Des Evans, Sr.

#12 Beau Atkinson, RFr.

#93 Jacolbe Cowan, Jr.

#96 Damon Bremer, Fr.

JACK

#25 Kaimon Rucker, Sr.

# 3 Amari Gainer, Gr.

#14 Jaybron Harvey, Fr.

#40 Tyler Thompson, Fr.

#87 Colby Doreen, Jr.

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