We continue to get you ready for the 2023 Tar Heel football season with our in-depth look at the roster that will take the field on September 2nd. Today, we look at the unit that will be the strength of this defense once again this season with one of the best duos in the entire country, the linebackers.
Senior Cedric Gray is not only the heart and soul of this unit but the defense as a whole. He finished last season top three in the country in both solo tackles (82) and total tackles (145) and it is the reason that he is on nearly every watch list you possibly can be as a linebacker. If he can get close to those numbers again and improve a little bit in pass coverage, he has a legitimate shot to be the first linebacker to land first team All-American honors since Brian Simmons in 1997.
He’ll pair with junior Power Echols, who is looking to build off of a really strong sophomore season. He was the nation’s leader in solo tackles midway through the regular season last year and still finished tenth in the country with 70 after his production slowed down a bit late in the year. His impact in the run game and in blitz situations can’t be questioned, but the staff is working with him on his pass coverage skills after he was picked on in that phase of the game too often a year ago.
The team has been searching for legitimate depth behind their starting linebackers for the better part of the last two years and it feels like they might have at least one rotational piece heading into the season. True freshman Amari Campbell has been impressing the staff since the minute that he arrived on campus and Brown said last week that he is the primary backup to both Gray and Echols right now. He has an aggressive downhill mindset and could be a nice weapon for this team this season, especially on obvious run downs, that will help keep the starters fresher later into the year.
The attention for the staff now turns to finding a fourth linebacker that can contribute in that room. Redshirt freshman Sebastian Cheeks is the favorite to do that after he flashed last preseason before an injury shut him down early last year. Playing with a physical edge seems to be the thing preventing Cheeks from being a part of the rotation right now. Hopefully he can take that step sometime soon and help give the team a legitimate rotation here for the first time in a few years.
The deeper depth on the roster is in good shape with some promising youth. True freshmen Caleb LaVallee and Michael Short are both promising prospects who are in their first year with the program. Both guys will be pushing to make their presences felt on special teams as they acclimate to the college level.
Sophomore Deuce Caldwell flashed when he got a chance to play against Virginia Tech and was a valuable special teams member a year ago. He’ll likely be tasked with a similar role this year.
This unit boasts the most walk-ons of any on the team with seven, the majority of which have been with the team for multiple years. Graduate Jake Harkleroad is a guy that seems to have the trust of the staff if he is ever needed beyond special teams and junior Jalen Brooks seems to be getting there, as well. Sophomore Gibson Macrae was a valuable special teams member a year ago and should be again this season, as should fellow sophomore Milad Aghaiepour, who established a role there late last season. Redshirt freshman Cade Law comes in after transferring from Vanderbilt where he played baseball. Redshirt freshman CJ Murphy and true freshman Jonny Fritz round out the unit.
Projected Depth Chart
#33 Cedric Gray, Sr.
#32 Sebastian Cheeks, RFr.
#44 Deuce Caldwell, So.
#30 Michael Short, Fr.
#53 Gibson Macrae, So.
#47 CJ Murphy, RFr.
#55 Cade Law, RFr.
#23 Power Echols, Jr.
#17 Amaree Campbell, Fr.
#34 Caleb LaVallee, Fr.
#45 Jake Harkleroad, Gr.
#36 Jalen Brooks, Jr.
#48 Milad Aghaiepour, So.
#52 Jonny Fritz, Fr.