The return of Gene Chizik provided Tar Heel fans with a lot of reasons to be excited about the team’s defense heading into last season. He was the defensive coordinator the last time the Tar Heels had made the ACC Championship before last season and did so with much less pure talent than he has this time around. While the team did make it back to Charlotte for the first time since 2015, it wasn’t because of the way Chizik’s unit performed.
The unit ranked outside of the 100 in points allowed per game, total defense and passing defense and wasn’t much better in run defense, ranking 86th nationally. The unit failed to create turnovers, ranking 104th in turnovers forced, the worst of any team in the sport to play for a conference championship and the defensive line may have been the worst in program history. They finished with the second-worst sack rate in the country, third-worst in standard down pass rush rate failed to rank in the top 100 of all but one of the advanced line statistic categories according to Football Outsiders.
Through all of their struggles, this defense has one unit that deserves a ton of credit for what they did last season. This Tar Heel linebacking corps has been the strength of the Tar Heel defense since Mack Brown’s return to the sidelines back in 2019, but that was never more evident than it was a year ago.
The duo of Cedric Gray and Power Echols weren’t talked about a lot nationally a year ago, but this preseason they are starting to get some well-deserved recognition. On3 ranked them as the sixth-best linebacking corps for this upcoming season in their offseason position rankings and it makes sense. Gray, who was just named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list for this season, was second in the nation in solo tackles and third in the nation in total tackles. Echols was one of the nation’s leaders in solo tackles for the majority of the season and finished tenth nationally at the end of the year. With the questions that remain for the defensive front and defensive backfield, it’s not crazy to think that the two could put up similar numbers.
The question is can the pair be what leads the turnaround for a defense that needs to improve for this Tar Heel team to take another step forward? I think it is certainly possible, but it is up to the rest of the defense and the staff to put this group in the right position to succeed. These past few seasons the linebackers have been forced to handle a lot of different things for this defense. Even slight improvements in front and/or behind them could be just what this team needs with these two who could both be candidates for All-American honors at the end of the season.