After consecutive nine-loss seasons by the North Carolina football team, the Tar Heel faithful were given a reason to feel optimistic about the defensive line system under coordinators Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen and defensive line coach Tim Cross.
In 2019, Bateman and Thigpen transformed the defense into a unit that improved by 56 spots in yards allowed per game, letting go 75 fewer yards per game compared to the year before.
UNC lost defensive line standouts Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford to the NFL, so they must rely on versatile players and relatively unproven talent, featuring sophomore Jahlil Taylor, junior Raymond Vohasek, sophomore Tomari Fox and junior Xach Gill.
UNC will be able to use Taylor as a strong nose tackle, yet he only posted seven solo tackles and four assisted tackles with no tackles for loss last year.
Though he played in 12 games, his playing time was limited due to Crawford starting over him as the main defensive tackle. Taylor will likely now start in 2020 and should be ready to become the leader of this young unit.
Vohasek, a junior college transfer out of the College of Dupage in Glen Elllyn, Illinois, is a lineman that many should keep an eye on this year.
Vohasek was a backup to Strowbridge last year and put up 15 total tackles and one sack. During his 2017 season at Dupage, he posted 33 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, earning him the rank of the No. 1 junior college player out of Illinois.
Fox is another young lineman set to have a breakout season in 2020. Serving as a backup in his first-year season, the versatile lineman accounted for five solo tackles, 10 assisted tackles and one forced fumble. Fox proved he can be productive in high school, where he recorded 116 total tackles, 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in his last three years.
Fox’s older brother, Tomon, is one of the main outside linebackers in UNC’s rotation. Fans should look forward to watching the duo work in Bateman and Thigpen’s 3-4 front scheme.
Rounding out the starting lineup is Gill, who flashed his potential last year as a backup. Gill finished the season appearing in all 13 games, including a start against Wake Forest. The junior posted seven solo tackles, three assisted tackles, one sack and one blocked extra point on the season.
In high school, Gill was ranked as the No. 7 prospect in North Carolina and helped lead Wake Forest High School to a 4AA state championship.
Behind these four likely starters is a group of young players from the 2019 and 2020 defensive recruiting haul. Kristian Varner and Kevin Hester Jr. were both three-star recruits out of Georgia and are redshirt first-years.
Of the true first-years, Myles Murphy, A.J. Beatty, Clyde Pinder Jr. and Kedrick Bingley-Jones will provide depth and learn the system for future years as they compete for playing time.
North Carolina’s young and fresh defensive line unit can hope to build on the solid foundation from 2019.
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