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Friday September 24th

UNC football's Jeremiah Gemmel uses faith, family to fuel Tar Heels' defense

UNC junior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (44) tackles NC State sophomore running back Jordon Houston (20) in Kenan Stadium Oct. 24, 2020. The Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 48-21.
Buy Photos UNC junior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (44) tackles NC State sophomore running back Jordon Houston (20) in Kenan Stadium Oct. 24, 2020. The Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 48-21.

Jeremiah Gemmel has built his young life on besting giants, finely tuned athletic anomalies and chip-carrying grinders who don’t care who gets in their way or why they’re there — but there’s nothing immediately remarkable about him.

Sure, his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame would make most people look small by comparison, and trying to best his 40-yard dash would leave a nation of armchair linebackers gasping for air. But make no mistake about it — if you were to examine a photo of Gemmel, the UNC senior linebacker, lined up against his peers, he would not be the one to point to and say, "Him! He’s the best!" 

But when you watch him for even just a snap, it’s clear: 

There’s just something different about Gemmel. 

“Early on, it was very obvious that he was a really bright kid, that football made a lot of sense to him,” North Carolina co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. “As he’s played more and he’s become more veteran, he’s gotten a lot of respect from his teammates. And now you see him bringing, and sometimes dragging, other guys with him.”

'The first one there'

The first thing to know about Jeremiah Gemmel on the field is that he does not stop talking, moving, thinking or reacting. Lining up in the heart of the Tar Heels’ defense, he swings his arms like a conductor and directs his teammates' padded Carolina Blue traffic safely home to the opposition’s ball-carrier. 

Those traits are why, despite representing something far closer to an athletic average than a physical outlier in college football, Gemmel pops out of the screen as that guy any time the Tar Heels take the field. Because he is, regardless of anything, that guy — the one North Carolina chose as a captain in his junior year, the one who seems to be playing the game live while everyone else is on tape delay. 

“Communication is key on the defense with a lot of moving parts,” Gemmel said. “When they come out in formations or sets or bunches, I feel like I diagnose the formation really quickly. And if I can get that vocalized to the D-line or secondary, I can help them get lined up and focusing quicker. I have a big responsibility going out there, but I wear it with pride now. That’s something I like to carry when I go out on the field.”

Gemmel has gained confidence and knowledge over the years, of course — no player can automatically interpret the game the way he does — but if any player was born with the mentality and spatial intelligence to lead a football orchestra between the numbers, it was Gemmel. 

Even in high school, playing in the talent-rich areas surrounding Atlanta, Gemmel made a clear statement early in his career that he was capable of competing with the best at the next level. 

Sure, there were the physical gifts. At the high school level, he often towered over his opponents — shifting past would-be blockers defensively and breaking into the open field when needed offensively — but he also stood above his opposition away from Friday night’s lights. 

“Even when he was younger, you could tell this kid was gonna be a special football player,” said Todd Crafton, the director of football operations at Gemmel’s alma mater, East Coweta High School. “You could go into your scheme every week, and he just got it. There was never a time where you weren’t sure he understood what he was supposed to do. He always knew where to be on the field and how to react.” 

As a high school junior, Crafton said, Gemmel was the leader of the East Coweta defense on the field, in the weight room and in places between, setting the tone for the entire program.

“When he walks into a room, he is already one of the leaders in the room," Crafton said. "And that’s just who he is. And that was definitely the case when he was a junior or a senior, when he didn’t even have to say anything.”

'Big family guy'

The first thing to know about Jeremiah Gemmel off the field is that he loves his family. 

He loves his grandparents, Rick and Debbie, who helped introduce him to two of the most important fixtures in his life: his faith and his football. 

Debbie, his grandmother, helped introduce him to his religion — she was the one who took him to Bible school on Sundays until he was in his early teens and the one who instilled many of the core values that make him the man he is now. 

Then was his grandfather, Rick, who taught him the game of football and pushed him in the direction of the sport despite his proclivity toward baseball. With all that wrestling and fighting Gemmel did with his brother, he had to put some of that aggression and muscle to use on the gridiron.

Today, Gemmel still carries the lessons he learned from his grandparents.

“I guess you could say I’m a big family guy,” Gemmel said. “I like spending time with my family. I’m a pretty religious person — my grandma instilled a lot of that in me … she had a lot to do with, not only with my stepfather and my grandfather, but her also instilling in me things that I carry along with me to this day.”

And when Debbie died in 2018, after Jeremiah had surgery and had to take time away from football, his bond with his family only grew closer. 

“That had a big effect on me, because I didn’t really have any way of coping with losing my grandma because I didn’t have football,” he said. “Getting closer with my family through that time helped me. That was the same season I really became the vocal leader that I never really thought I would be.”

'Change the way football is looked at'

Perhaps no player has better represented the shift in how North Carolina football carries itself since the return of Mack Brown than Gemmel. 

Just listen to Brown himself, who said earlier in August that Gemmel is one of the best leaders in the ACC, or Bateman, who said on Monday that the linebacker has helped elevate the expectations within the program.

“When I first got here, I think the expectation was we practiced and you went on about your day,” Bateman said. “And I think Jeremiah Gemmel has done a good job of getting these guys to understand that there’s more work to be done outside of practice, and I think that’s really paid off for some of our young kids.”

An NFL future seems likely for Gemmel. Brown said earlier this month that he thinks the star linebacker will be leaving next year with the buzz he’s generated among the league’s scouts.

But for now, Gemmel’s eyes are set on helping lead the Tar Heels on their quest to reach national contender status. 

Regardless of how this year goes, Gemmel’s legacy as a Tar Heel is largely set. He has helped lead a football renaissance in Kenan Memorial Stadium — being a key member of the first North Carolina side since 1950 to reach a major bowl game — and stood out as one of the voices of the team along the way. 

But to hear Gemmel tell it, the most important piece of what he wants his legacy to be is simple: being remembered by the guys he played with, the coaches who led him and to be a part of the group that inherited football misery and turned it to triumph. 

“I just want to be remembered as a player who helped lead the team,” he said. “Be a part of that group of guys who helped change the way football is looked at in North Carolina. But most of all, I just wanna be remembered by the guys that I played with along the way.”

@zachycrain 

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com



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