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Thursday October 21st

Analysis: Tar Heels will look to lock down the linebacking corps in 2021

UNC junior linebacker Eugene Asante (7) tackles junior running back Josh Henderson (23) during Carolina's rainy spring game on April 24th in Kenan Stadium.
Buy Photos UNC junior linebacker Eugene Asante (7) tackles junior running back Josh Henderson (23) during Carolina's rainy spring game on April 24th in Kenan Stadium.

Following the loss of main linebacker Chazz Surratt to the NFL Draft, the North Carolina football team will look to find a replacement for the team captain and defensive MVP of 2020. 

Surratt, a quarterback-turned-linebacker in his junior year, shined in his new feature role with the Tar Heels, racking up nominations for multiple national awards and earning an All-ACC first team in both seasons on the defensive side of the ball.

His production will be difficult to replace in the upcoming season, but the Tar Heels have experienced players to establish a solid foundation at the linebacker position.

Here is a look at how these pieces are expected to come together.

Tomon Fox

Fox, a graduate student from Lawrenceville, Ga., had a phenomenal defensive season last year, earning himself an All-ACC Honorable Mention nod. He will look to reach that status once again in his final season, all while leading the Tar Heels on and off the field as the team's reigning Bill Koman Award recipient. 

In 12 games last year, Fox finished with 36 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Fox was a clear-cut presence on the defense as a shifty piece eligible not only to play in coverage, but also to put quick pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

With Surratt gone, Fox should become the anchor of this defense, which could potentially parlay into national accolades as the season progresses.

Eugene Asante

Out of all players on the Tar Heel roster this year, Asante is one of the most likely candidates to have a breakout season. The junior from Chantilly, Va., has seen limited time on the field, and has mostly been used as a special teams piece in the North Carolina scheme.

In a smaller role, Asante was still able to be productive, notching 27 tackles on the season. Though Asante plays inside linebacker and is not utilized as much for quarterback pressure, he should be able to increase his role as an all-around versatile piece in this upcoming season.

Coming out of high school, Asante was the No. 9 outside linebacker recruit in the nation as a consensus four-star prospect. Having played both linebacker and running back, his multi-faceted skillset should help him thrive wherever he is placed.

Jeremiah Gemmel

Gemmel, a senior from Newnan, Ga., has produced exceedingly well as an inside linebacker over his last two seasons with the Tar Heels. After being redshirted and playing sparingly during his first two seasons, Gemmel proved why he is a crucial piece to the Tar Heels’ linebacker core in his junior and senior years.

Simply put, Gemmel is a tackling machine. In 25 games over the past two seasons, Gemmel recorded 162 total tackles, while also tallying 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception and seven passes deflected. 

If Gemmel can replicate his production into his third year as a starter, he will continue to be a force in both run and pass defense. Expect Gemmel to increase his role on the team with Surratt gone, especially in both tackles and pass coverage.

Young prospects

Behind these three starters is a myriad of young depth looking to both learn from team veterans and increase their impact on the field. Some notable contenders expected to contribute are sophomores Desmond Evans, Cedric Gray and Kaimon Rucker along with first-years Raneiria Dillworth and Power Echols.

Ranked No. 10 in the preseason rankings, the Tar Heels and their dynamic defense will look to continue their progress from 2020 into 2021 and potentially compete for the program's first ACC title since 1980.  

@igbryant619

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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