UNC Football Spring Game: A closer look at the linebackers

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 19: Jeremiah Gemmel #44 of the University of North Carolina waits for the snap during a game between North Carolina and Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 19: Jeremiah Gemmel #44 of the University of North Carolina waits for the snap during a game between North Carolina and Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

With the UNC Football Spring Game just a little over a week away, we continue our series on taking a closer look at each position group. Today we will remain on the defensive side of the ball as we examine the 2021 members of the linebacker room.

Quarterback | Running Backs | Wide Receivers/Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Line

In the article examining the defensive line, we quoted Paul “Bear” Bryant as saying that “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” What makes up a championship defense? During his press conference recently, head coach Mack Brown referred to primarily stopping the run and creating turnovers as being a priority.

If a team can not effectively run the ball against the Tar Heels then they can not control the time of possession. That in turn will provide more opportunities for the Sam Howell-led offense to do what they do best which is putting points on the scoreboard. Creating turnovers does exactly the same thing and gives the offense a shorter field.

The 2021 version of the Carolina defense has the potential to be extremely good with the possibility of being great. The defensive line is vastly improved and the secondary has playmakers loaded throughout. There is talented depth to provide a continuous wave of a blue and white storm converging on any offense on the schedule. Outside linebacker coach Jovan Dewitt and middle linebacker coach/co-defensive coordinator Tommy Thigpen have the responsibility of getting the middle level of the defense up to a championship level and they have an exceptional group to work with.

Despite losing Chazz Surratt to the NFL, this group is still loaded with players that have gotten stronger, smarter and more explosive in the off-season. There are currently 17 linebackers on the roster but this article will focus on the top nine that will most likely see playing time this coming season. The two incoming freshmen, Raneiria ‘Rara’ Dillworth and Power Echols, will not be part of that group barring an unforeseen circumstance. It is not a reflection of their talent but just that they need more time to develop physically.

At the middle linebacker position, we will begin with the two most likely starters. They are Jeremiah Gemmel and Eugene Asante. Gemmel is the quarterback of the defense who was a team captain in 2020. He had 78 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception and a forced fumble. Asante has primarily been a special teams ace during his career at Carolina earning the respect of his teammates and coaches. After Surratt opted out of the Orange Bowl, Asante started the game and finished with a game- high ten tackles. Providing depth in the middle are junior Khadry Jackson and sophomore Cedric Gray. Both of these young men are smart and can fly to the football.

In the UNC football system, the outside linebacker position is more of a hybrid. He can rush the quarterback or play the run with a hand down, just as a traditional defensive end would. He can do the same standing up, just as an outside linebacker would so that he can drop into coverage when called upon. Carolina has five players that are prepared to contribute at a high level in creating chaos in the opponent’s backfield.

The top two returning players are Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper. Fox started all 12 games in 2020 and received ALL-ACC Honorable Mention. He is currently tied for fifth in program history alongside Lawrence Taylor with 21 career sacks and tied for seventh with 33 career tackles for loss. In 2020, he led Carolina with 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks as well as being tied for the team lead with seven quarterback hurries. Hopper started ten of the twelve games in 2020. He recorded 27 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks in a limited capacity. His ability to play the run and provide pass coverage is a valuable strength. Providing depth are ophomores Kaimom Rucker and Desmond Evans joined by junior Chris Collins.

Co-Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman is in an excellent position to now be able to utilize the vast array of defensive play calls at his disposal. The intelligence, speed and strength throughout the linebacker room is higher than it has been in quite a while. The first test for UNC Football will be Friday September 3rd when the team travels to Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies. Redshirt junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister will be waiting along with the rest of his offensive teammates to determine just how strong the Carolina defense will be. My prediction is that it will be a very long night for #3. UNC football will no longer just be associated with a high-powered offense led by Heisman candidate Sam Howell. They will also be known as a blue and white wave of mass destruction converging on an offense constantly for four full quarters. Let the games begin.

The Spring Game is scheduled for Saturday April 24 at 3:00pm on the ACC Network

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