UNC Football: 2022 Positional Preview: Linebackers

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 16: Cedric Gray #33 of the North Carolina Tar Heels returns an interception against the Miami Hurricanes during the first half of their game at Kenan Memorial Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 16: Cedric Gray #33 of the North Carolina Tar Heels returns an interception against the Miami Hurricanes during the first half of their game at Kenan Memorial Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

Our 2022 UNC Football positional previews continue, as we take a closer look at the team’s linebacker unit heading into the new season.

QB | RB | WR | TE | OL
DL  | LB |  CB  |  S  | ST

With Gene Chizik’s return to Chapel Hill, the UNC football program’s defense will take on a new look in 2022. The hope is that Coach Chizik’s arrival and defensive simplification will ignite this talented defensive group.

Rather than confuse his defenders with convoluted schemes and calls, Chizik’s defensive unit will be focused on letting players make plays. See ball. Hit ball.

We’ve heard the message from players all summer long. The focus on defense boils down to two words: “communication” and “fundamentals”.

The linebacking core will play a pivotal role in helping reverse the fortunes for the Tar Heel defense. Who is part of that group? What will the linebackers look like in Chizik’s 4-2-5 base defense? Let’s investigate.

What We Know

First, some words on the scheme. Coach Chizik’s defense will run a base 4-2-5 defense, with four defensive linemen (Nose, 3 Tech, Power End, Jack), two linebackers (Mike, Will), and five in the secondary (two corners, two safeties, and a star).

Because of the presence of the fifth member of the secondary, the linebacking duo will have the opportunity to focus more on stopping the run and less on dropping into coverage.

Note that under Jay Bateman, defensive ends like Dez Evans and Kaimon Rucker were listed as linebackers. They are now listed as defensive linemen and will share the all-important duties of the Power End. To that end, they are not listed with the linebackers.

Neither in this article will we discuss the jack position, despite it being something of a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.

Chazz Surratt is long gone, as is Jeremiah Gemmel. Thusly, it feels like a new era for the UNC linebacker unit. Cedric Gray is the face of that new era, having led the team in tackles last season despite not starting the first two games. The expectation all summer has been that Gray, along with Power Echols, would be the two starters with RaRa Dillworth providing pivotal minutes as well.

At Coach Mack Brown’s press conference on Monday, he confirmed that very thing: Gray, Echols, and Dillworth are the Blue Team linebackers (those trusted to play at any time).

The Key Players

Starting WILL (Weakside): Cedric Gray (Junior | 6-2 | 230)

This time last year all the UNC linebacker previews discussed Eugene Asante stepping in alongside Jeremiah Gemmel to fill the void vacated by Chazz Surratt, who was off to the NFL. He did so for the first two games of the 2021 season, but then against Virginia in Week 3, Asante was replaced by sophomore Cedric Gray. All Gray did was go on to start every game the rest of the season and lead the team in tackles (100 total, 53 solo). So firm was his grip on the position that Asante ultimately transferred to Auburn.

Gray, now a junior, is the anchor of the linebacking core, like Surratt and Gemmel before him. Expect Gray to have another potent year, made all the more so possible because of the presence of RaRa Dillworth who will allow the starters to catch their breath as needed so that the defense can stay fresh and ready.

2021 Stats: 13 GP, 11 GS, 100 tackles (53 solo), 7 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 2 QBH, 3 BRK

Starting MIKE (Middle): Power Echols (Sophomore | 6-0.25 | 225)

Sophomore Power Echols will replace Gemmel, joining Gray to help anchor the interior of Chizik’s defense. As a true freshman last season, Echols played in all 13 games, recording 25 tackles and an interception. “Power” is an apt name for this young man who hits with a ton of force. That approach, mixed with Gray’s cerebral game should make for a potent linebacker tandem.

2021 Stats: 13 GP, 25 tackles (16 solo), 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBH

RaRa Dillworth (Sophomore | 6-1.25 | 200)

Dillworth is known to be perhaps the fastest member of the Tar Heel football team. That quickness matched will football instincts make him a prime candidate to operate within Chizik’s defense. Turn on your TV on Saturday and watch No. 11 (no, not that No. 11 on the other side of the ball) fly around the field when he gets his chance.

2021 Stats: 12 GP, 6 tackles, 1 TFL


Sebastian Cheeks (Freshman | 6-3.25 | 220)

Cheeks is not yet listed as a Blue Team linebacker, however, at Coach Brown’s Week 0 press conference, he mentioned the great progress the true freshman has already made and that his trajectory will move him into Blue Team status.

Keep an eye on Cheeks to provide pivotal backup minutes as his development continues.

Deuce Caldwell (Freshman | 6-0 | 225)

While Caldwell wasn’t listed on the depth chart or mentioned by Coach Brown, he’s another true freshman that’s earned praise and warrants at least being mentioned in this space.


The linebackers are thin in number, but long on talent. Due to that reality, the Tar Heels will be wary of unforeseen issues such as injury or targeting ejections.

Even though this group is thin, you only need two linebackers at a time. So if you have four you trust, you’re two deep and good to go. You’ve got impressive talent in Gray, Echols, and Dillworth, with Cheeks emerging.

Expect another big year from Gray (triple-digit tackles in back-to-back years is certainly on the table) with Echols following close behind statistically.

Depth Chart

Mike (Middle) Linebacker

STARTER: Power Echols
BACKUP: Sebastian Cheeks

Will (Weakside) Linebacker

STARTER: Cedric Gray
BACKUP: RaRa Dillworth

dark. Next. Meet Josh Downs and Tony Grimes at free event

Follow us @KeepingItHeel on Twitter and like our fan page on Facebook for continued coverage of UNC football news, views, and updates.