Mack Brown returned to the podium on Monday to recap one of the biggest beatdowns in his second stint in Chapel Hill over the Virginia Tech Hokies. While the team’s performance in that game was talked about a ton, he started the presser by announcing that the team’s depth at linebacker has taken a major blow.
True freshman linebacker Sebastian Cheeks will miss the rest of the season with an upper-body injury after playing a major role for the team’s special teams unit on kick coverage and punt return in the first three games of the season. The good news is, with him not having played in each of the last two games, he will be able to keep the year of eligibility and will return to the field in 2023 as a redshirt freshman.
Meanwhile, sophomore RaRa Dillworth, the team’s primary backup at inside linebacker, missed this weekend’s game with Virginia Tech with an upper-body injury and will be monitored throughout this week by the staff. Dillworth has been a valuable rotational piece for the Tar Heels for the majority of the season, playing 25 or more snaps in each of the first three games of the season. He had seven total tackles and 0.5 a tackle for loss in the first four games of the season prior to missing this weekend’s game.
If Dillworth is unable to go again, that would mean a heavy dose of Cedric Gray and Power Echols in the middle of this defense. That isn’t a major issue in terms of skill because it’s clear that they are the two best inside linebackers on the team right now, but it means that any injury to either one of them would put the unit in a bit of a dire situation. Noah Taylor kicking to one of the spots would probably be an option that gets seriously looked at with him having played there a lot in his time at Virginia and Chris Collins providing some veteran depth there. True freshman Malaki Hamrick is an interesting name to watch even more closely now, as they could use more at either inside linebacker or the JACK spot if needed. Guys like Deuce Caldwell and even walk-on Jake Harkleroad could now be looked to as options, also, and could certainly be prime candidates to replace the two on special teams for the time being.
The good news is, Dillworth’s injury doesn’t seem like it is a long-term concern, but this was the one big concern that we had with this linebacker group in the summer. As for the rest of the roster, this team is about as healthy as you could hope for at this point of the season.