Since Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill, the UNC football defensive line has seen a vast overhaul.
During Brown’s first season in 2019, co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman relied heavily upon veterans on the line due to a lack of depth at the position, but the talent level has risen up front for the Tar Heels over the past two seasons.
The Tar Heels return all of their defensive linemen who received snaps in the Orange Bowl loss to No. 5 Texas A&M last season, with senior Raymond Vohasek set to return along with juniors Tomari Fox and Jahlil Taylor. Sophomores Myles Murphy, Kevin Hester Jr. and Clyde Pinder Jr. will also be back.
Sophomore Kristian Varner and redshirt first-year Kedrick Bingley-Jones — who was held back by injuries last season — are also set to contribute in 2021.
Along with the returning talent, the Tar Heels also added two more blue-chip players to the rotation up front in the 2021 class, with talented first-years Keeshawn Silver and Jahvaree Ritzie seeking to earn playing time as well.
The number of bodies up front will not be an issue for the Tar Heels this season, but the onus falls on the less experienced players to step up.
Fox, who is the younger brother of graduate linebacker Tomon Fox, has witnessed the defensive line overhaul first-hand since he stepped foot on campus in Chapel Hill. The Georgia native expects big things from them heading into his third year.
“It’s at a point where we don't have any more pups,” Fox said. “Everybody’s a big dog now, so it’s just a matter of who’s going in first. And you’re probably not even going to notice the change, because even if we swap out, we’re just going to keep coming. There’s not going to be any difference in play.”
Although there are a lot of underclassmen up front for the Tar Heels, having the veterans around has aided the development of some of the younger athletes.
Fox and Vohasek — who was named to Phil Steele’s preseason first-team All-ACC list — will provide a plethora of experience and leadership up front for a group that is still chasing its potential. The pair combined for 7.5 sacks last season.
The Tar Heels have recruited the defensive line position as well as any team in the country the past two classes. UNC signed three consensus four-star defensive linemen in 2020 and built on that success in 2021 by signing their first five-star lineman in Silver to go along with adding another four-star prospect to the fold in Ritzie.
The pair of talented linemen were early enrollees, arriving on campus in January, which should only help their chances of seeing early playing time.
There will be a lot of competition for snaps on the line this year — something that some Tar Heel defenses in recent memory did not have.
In 2019, the Tar Heels only had one defensive lineman on their roster listed at or above 300 pounds, but this year they have seven — and they’re only getting bigger.
In reality, it may take some time for this group to gel together and play up to their full potential, but the pieces are there for defensive line coach Tim Cross to take this group to the next level moving forward.