Aaron Crawford answered the media’s questions with a sense of swagger at the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte in mid-July.
The redshirt junior defensive tackle was excited about what he and the rest of the North Carolina defensive line could do this season.
“I feel like we have some of the best depth in the country,” he said. “We have eight guys that can rotate through and really get after it with minimal drop-off.”
With the entire unit back, excluding graduated defensive end Dajaun Drennon, Crawford's optimism was justified. But less than three weeks later, UNC announced suspensions for 13 players for selling team-issued shoes. Three of the 13 were defensive linemen — Malik Carney, Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper. Each will serve four-game suspensions.
To make matters worse, this month, Crawford suffered a knee injury in practice that will sideline him for an estimated four weeks, according to Inside Carolina. Crawford, along with Carney and Fox, was expected to start alongside senior defensive tackle Jalen Dalton.
However, the NCAA approved a request to stagger Carney and Fox’s suspensions. Carney will begin his four-game suspension on Sept. 8 against East Carolina University, and Fox will begin his on Sept. 27 against the University of Miami.
Crawford's loss is felt immediately. He was tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fourth with five tackles for a loss. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound veteran leaves big shoes to fill, but one possible candidate to sub in for Crawford is redshirt junior defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge.
Strowbridge had 12 solo and 22 assisted tackles, with five and a half for loss last season. The Deerfield Beach, Fla, native says he and Crawford used to work on pass rush moves together on off days, and the two still bounce ideas off each other.
After initially struggling in his transition from defensive end to tackle last year, Strowbridge began adapting to his new role this offseason.
“I’m starting to get down the different techniques (and) the aiming points,” Strowbridge said after practice on Wednesday. “I’m just trying to have fun with it now. I’m not worried about messing up or blowing up plays.”
Replacing Carney, who led the team with 12 tackles for loss and five and a half sacks, is another challenge. Fox’s production will also be missed at the other defensive end position. The redshirt sophomore was second on the team with four sacks and had 23 total tackles.
Two players who could get more playing time with Carney and Fox out are junior defensive end Allen Cater and redshirt senior defensive end Tyler Powell.
Cater played in 12 games last season and had four solo and seven assisted tackles. Powell started two games before suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth game against Duke University.
Another veteran in the unit is redshirt senior defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke. Clarke had 32 tackles, including four and half for loss last season.
With the depth of the defensive line taking a hit with the loss of key players, North Carolina will be forced to rely on the experience of the second unit to hold its own up front.
Strowbridge was asked on Wednesday how the defensive line would thrive with several starters missing multiple games.
“We have a lot of versatility,” he said. “So even if some of us are down, a lot of us know the different positions. So we can switch back and forth.”
The response had the same sort of swagger that Crawford’s answers had in July.
“I’m not too worried about it,” he said of the injuries and suspensions.
Fedora and his staff hope confidence is just one of the many on- and off-the-field attributes the starters passed down to the second unit, whose readiness will be tested in the weeks that follow the opener.