BY John Bauman
Three players to watch on UNC football's defense in 2016
The North Carolina football team graduated 16 seniors after a record-setting 2015 season in which the Tar Heels won 11 games and made it to the ACC Championship game. The North Carolina coaching staff has turned the page on that season, though, and now turns to address key problems, like how to replace all those seniors and how to improve a defense that gave up 435.9 yards per game in 2015.
Much of the burden of fixing those two problems falls on defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, but a mix of both veteran players and newcomers will have to carry the load as well.
Here are three names on the defensive side to keep an eye out for in the 2016 season. These three players may not start right away but will see the field a lot as North Carolina and Chizik look to develop depth and continue to improve on the defensive end of the field.
Aaron Crawford, a defensive tackle out of Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., was one of the key members of the Tar Heels’ 2015 recruiting class. Coach Larry Fedora threw him right into the fire a season ago and Crawford responded well to the challenge. In limited playing time against North Carolina A&T and Illinois, the first-year recorded six tackles. However, Crawford suffered an injury that caused him to miss the final 11 games of the season.
Crawford was able to redshirt and had a good spring to establish himself as a key member of UNC's interior line rotation going forward. In the spring game, Crawford was often paired on the defensive line with Jalen Dalton, another highly-touted member of the 2015 recruiting class. Crawford had an up and down spring game, recording just one tackle, but he flashed some potential as a pass rusher.
Crawford, Dalton and Robert Dinkins, another sophomore, are the future of the Tar Heel defensive line that will need to improve mightily after giving up 247.4 rushing yards per game in the 2015 season. The key to fixing that part of the defense will be the growth of Dalton, Crawford and Dinkins.
North Carolina lost two talented linebackers, Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer, this offseason to graduation. Pencilled in as replacements are experienced junior Cayson Collins and talented sophomore Andre Smith. Behind those two, though, the depth chart gets muddy. Neither Smith nor J.B. Copeland, a linebacker who transferred in from junior college, played much this spring, giving someone else an opportunity to take advantage of the extra reps.
Enter Cole Holcomb, who walked onto the team before the 2014 season. Holcomb has a good bit of experience under his belt, having recording 15 tackles in 13 games last season. He was also credited with a game-high 10 tackles in the spring game. The sophomore from Florida filled a lot of gaps and played well in space at the linebacker position. He wasn’t perfect but he is a name to watch this fall if either Smith or Collins struggles early on.
The North Carolina’s secondary’s starting quartet is undoubtedly talented. Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart are as good as it gets at cornerback, and Dominquie Green and Donnie Miles bring experience and veteran savvy to the safety positions. Behind those four, though, the Tar Heels have a morass of first-years and sophomore vying for playing time.
In the spring game, first-year Myles Dorn stood out and established himself as a backup safety the Tar Heel coaching staff can feel comfortable with. Dorn started in place of Miles and recorded three tackles and one pass breakup. Dorn is similar to Miles in that he hits hard and gets involved in the run defense from the safety position.
If the Tar Heels have any injuries in the secondary, Dorn could end up playing a major role in the Tar Heel defense this fall.
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