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Saturday December 3rd

Analysis: Young talent highlights thin UNC linebacker corps

UNC junior defensive back Giovanni Biggers (27) and first year linebacker Power Echols (23) tackle a Georgia State player at the game on Sept. 11 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 59-17.
Buy Photos UNC junior defensive back Giovanni Biggers (27) and first year linebacker Power Echols (23) tackle a Georgia State player at the game on Sept. 11 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 59-17.

With the graduation of field general Jeremiah Gemmel and four-year starter Tomon Fox, the North Carolina football team’s linebacking core will be led by a new guard in 2022. 

Since returning to Chapel Hill in 2019, many of head coach Mack Brown’s recruiting wins have been on the defensive side of the ball — creating a core of talented young linebackers with a chance to step up this fall. Despite the highly-rated talent at the top of the corps, the group will have to rely on some new faces come kickoff against Florida A&M.

For a team that finished 94th in the FBS last season in total defense — giving up 418 yards per game — defensive improvements will be key to the Tar Heels’ success under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. 

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

Cedric Gray

After coming to Chapel Hill as a four-star recruit in 2020, Gray had little in-game impact as a first-year. But last fall, he played an instrumental role in the Tar Heels’ defense. 

Gray burst onto the scene in an early October game against Florida State, when he registered double-digit tackles for the first time in his career. The next week, he registered two interceptions, including one in the final seconds to seal a win against Miami. When it was all said and done, the Charlotte native finished his sophomore campaign with a team-high 100 tackles while forcing three turnovers and adding 2.5 sacks to boot. 

As the most experienced member of the Tar Heels’ linebacker corps entering the fall, Gray will enter his junior campaign with the most assured role of anyone in the group. He will have to put together a big season for North Carolina to succeed defensively. 

Despite missing the cut for the preseason All-ACC team, Gray has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the conference by season's end.  

Power Echols

As a true first-year in 2021, Echols made his presence known in Chapel Hill despite limited reps. 

The Charlotte native came to UNC as a four-star recruit and top-10 inside linebacker in his class and finished his first-year campaign with 25 tackles and an interception. With Gemmel gone, Echols will likely be tasked with taking over the field general role in the heart of UNC’s defense. 

Echols will need to break out in 2022 for North Carolina to assure any improvements in Chizik’s first season back in Chapel Hill. 

Raneiria "RaRa" Dillworth

Another four-star recruit, Dillworth got limited reps as a first-year in 2021. But with all of the changes in the linebacker room this offseason, the sophomore could be primed for a breakout this fall. 

In limited action last year, Dillworth made six tackles and one tackle-for-loss. With Fox gone, there will be plenty of reps available at outside linebacker for the taking. With a 200-pound frame, Dillworth’s speed and range are his greatest assets, and he should benefit from playing behind a big defensive line.

Prospects 

The Tar Heels signed a pair of linebackers from the 2022 class that could compete for reps this fall: Sebastian Cheeks and Randy "Deuce" Caldwell. Cheeks, a 6 foot, 3 inch, 220-pound four-star recruit, was the more highly-touted of the pair, but is unlikely to see much action early on. 

As the year progresses, though, North Carolina’s lack of depth at the position could force either one of these first-years onto the field. 

@zachycrain

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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