With all three starters penciled in, linebacking corps offers North Carolina some stability
Amidst a training camp full of new faces and position battles, North Carolina’s linebacking corps is arguably the most stable part of the team.
Much of the offense is still under construction, and while there’s a lot of depth along the defensive line and in the secondary, there are still questions that remain at those positions. But head coach Larry Fedora knows this: Andre Smith, Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb will be his linebackers.
“That’s a group you really don’t worry about,” Fedora said.
After the seasons those three had a year ago, it’s understandable why Fedora feels that way. Heading into the 2016 season, there were some question marks at linebacker for the Tar Heels after the departures of Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer. But for the most part, Smith, Collins and Holcomb held their own, providing a glimpse of what could come this season.
Holcomb, a former walk-on who did not earn a scholarship until August 2016, had a breakout season. Playing at outside linebacker as a junior, he led the Tar Heels with 115 tackles. Fedora offered high praise to Holcomb recently, saying “pound for pound, he’s the strongest guy on our football team.”
Right behind him with 113 tackles was Smith, a bulky 240-pound middle linebacker who should continue to develop in talent and leadership as a junior. Rounding out the group is Collins, a guy with an athletic 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame coming off a 60-tackle season.
Add in the fact that the trio of Smith, Collins and Holcomb started a combined 31 games in 2016, it’s easy to see why another season with the same sort of continuity could pay big dividends for them — and the Tar Heel defense as a whole.
In 2016, the play of UNC’s linebackers was impressive, if not a bit unexpected. But this year, expectations are high. For all the strides the Tar Heel defensive line has made in terms of depth and for all the upside that exists in UNC’s secondary, the linebacker group is expected to be the core of the defense. Does that mean there’s added pressure? Not according to Holcomb.
“Everything goes through the linebacker corps – from the plays to the checks to the calls that are made,” he said. “So we definitely have that weight but we wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what we like.”
Providing depth behind Holcomb, Smith and Collins are returning reserves Ayden Bonilla, Hunter Crafford and Dominique Ross. As is to be expected in football, injuries could happen. But Fedora’s decision to convert first-year Kayne Roberts from linebacker to running back suggests he’s pleased with the group’s depth.
Not much has changed schematically for the linebackers since their former position coach, John Papuchis, was promoted to defensive coordinator after Gene Chizik’s resignation. But there are some new areas of emphasis.
“Some things that we emphasize a little bit more are stopping the run and trying to get home on pressures,” Smith said.
That sounds about right, considering UNC allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game last season, which was 109th nationally. Perhaps a new directive from first-year linebackers coach Mike Ekeler could help in that regard. Ekeler, who served as the defensive coordinator at North Texas before coming to UNC, has told his linebackers to “be an eraser” against the run and rely less on help from the safeties.
“Coach Ek is all about technique,” Holcomb said. “He’ll sit there for an hour and a half, and we’ll just talk about technique. He knows we know it as old guys – we already know the defense. So there’s no point in going over that because we’re already doing everything right; we’re already doing that. Now it’s what’s our technique’s like.”