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The Daily Tar Heel

Linebackers more crucial than ever in DC Jay Bateman's system

UNC georgia tech football holcomb
Linebacker Cole Holcomb (36) takes down a hornet during the game against Georgia Tech Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Kenan Memorial Stadium. UNC lost to Georgia Tech 38-28.

In 2018, the North Carolina football team allowed an average of 34.6 points per game. Unless you're in the Big 12 or have Patrick Mahomes on your team, that's not a number with which you can win football games, and is one of the biggest reasons why the Tar Heels finished with a 2-9 record last season.

New head coach Mack Brown has praised his team's secondary, while expressing concern about a lack of depth on the defensive line. Where does the linebacker corps fit in?

With new defensive coordinator Jay Bateman's defensive system – it could be called a 3-4, but Bateman doesn't subscribe to such traditional notions – linebackers will be more important than in years prior, when the team trotted out not three, but four defensive lineman on most downs. 

The two outside linebacker spots will be filled by players who are, relatively speaking, proven commodities. The team's first released depth chart listed junior Tomon Fox at one slot, with the other to be filled by either senior Allen Cater or junior Tyrone Hopper.

In eight games last season, Fox posted 27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and a blocked field goal. He figures as the most experienced of the outside linebackers, as Cater played in six games in 2018, three at defensive end, before tearing his ACL. Hopper played in six games on special teams and on the defensive line.

Inside linebacker features question marks, too. Though Dominique Ross is expected to be an entrenched starter, he'll be out for the first half against South Carolina thanks to his role in the fight against N.C. State last season. Senior linebacker Jonathan Smith will also miss the first half of the season opener.

That places junior and former quarterback Chazz Surratt in the starting lineup, who has yet to play a defensive down. Surratt made the switch to linebacker this past offseason – he started seven games under center as a first-year before appearing in just one game as a sophomore.

The other inside linebacker spot will be filled by Jeremiah Gemmel, a sophomore who has just one career tackle to his name. 

The lack of experience in the defensive backfield is compounded by the loss of Cole Holcomb, who was a second team All-ACC selection a season ago before being drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins. Holcomb's 105 tackles in 2018 led the team for the third consecutive year; his contributions and veteran presence will be sorely missed.

Of course, every exit or injury doubles as an opportunity for someone else to step up. It remains to be seen who the Tar Heels' next Cole Holcomb will be – or if any linebacker this season can approach his considerable production – but with the season kicking off Saturday against the Gamecocks, answers will come sooner rather than later.


@DTHSports |

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