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The Daily Tar Heel

Analysis: Seasoned veterans comprise this year's defensive line and linebacker room

UNC junior defensive lineman Kevin Hester Jr. (98) and junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) tackle Wake Forest redshirt junior quarterback Sam Hartman (10) during their game at Truist Field on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. UNC won 36-34 to clinch the 2022 Coastal Conference Championship.

Although the North Carolina football team had a strong campaign last year, its defense struggled with consistency.

The Tar Heels allowed 436.5 yards per game last season, ranking 116th-worst out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. As UNC looks to improve that metric in 2023, strong play from the defensive linemen and linebackers will be crucial to limit opposing offenses.

Here's a look at some players that can make or break this crucial new-look defense:

Kevin Hester Jr.

Senior Kevin Hester Jr. proved to be one of the strongest aspects of the Tar Heel defense last year, leading the defensive line with 49 total tackles.

Standing at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, the senior from Kennesaw, Georgia thrives in the defensive tackle position, having played all three of his past seasons seasons in the trenches.

Once a 3-star prospect in high school, Hester has worked his way up to earn an important role on this team. As a reserve defensive linemen as a first-year and sophomore, he was able to start nine out of 14 games in his junior season. Going into his senior campaign, Hester Jr. is listed as a starter, continuing his upward trend.

Gaining 10 pounds over the summer, it is clear that Hester Jr. is ready for his fourth year as a Tar Heel. His size and ability to make tackles, which he's already proven, will surely make him a vital player for North Carolina.

Desmond Evans

The former 5-star prospect out of Sanford, NC struggled to make a name for himself in his first two years at UNC and is expected to assume a larger role in the trenches. After starting seven of his eight games, Evans' junior campaign was cut short when he suffered an injury against Pitt.

Under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, Evans returns to the starting defensive end position after tallying a career-high 25 tackles last season. Evans' experience, coupled with his imposing 6-foot-6 frame, has him well-equipped for a potential breakout season in which he aims to be even more physical.

Myles Murphy

The Greensboro, NC native started 12 games last season and will reprise this role in 2023 to act as a cornerstone of the defensive line. Murphy's best season was in 2021, when he recorded 38 tackles and four sacks while being awarded second-team All-ACC honors.

The lineman's performance dipped slightly last year, posting just 29 tackles over 14 games. However, Murphy's three years of consistently seeing snaps brings him an acumen that's matched by few of his teammates. His size and overall knowledge of the game can help the Tar Heels create better consistency on defense en route to a more successful season.

Kaimon Rucker

As one of the more prolific defensive linemen last year, Rucker posted 37 tackles in his junior season to go with a team-high 3.5 sacks.

The Heartwell, Georgia product stands at 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds. After playing linebacker for his first three seasons at UNC, Rucker started at defensive linemen last season and will switch to start at jack this year.

Rucker is one of the more seasoned linemen on the Tar Heel squad, appearing in all 14 games last season and starting four, making him an important leader this upcoming season.

Amari Gainer

The graduate transfer out of Florida State will look to make an immediate impact alongside other veterans. Gainer's agility and explosiveness off the snap aid him in pressuring opposing quarterbacks by disrupting their pocket presence.

The 6-foot-3.5 Tallahassee, Florida native's ability to slip by blockers may help prevent explosive plays that have given UNC fits the past two seasons. During his five years with the Seminoles, Gainer tallied 210 tackles, including 19 tackles for losses.

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The Tar Heels are very familiar with Gainer's presence, having lost to FSU in 2020 and 2021 by a combined 13-point differential. As Gainer adjusts to a new system under Chizik, the graduate will switch to play at the outside linebacker and jack positions behind Rucker and will be looking to continue his dynamic and effective play this year.

Cedric Gray

Gray, a former first-team All-ACC pick, led the Power 5 with 145 tackles last year and will look to continue that success as a returning cornerstone in UNC's defense. The senior linebacker found his stride in an explosive road performance against Appalachian State, totaling 13 tackles to propel a breakout season. Gray finished third among all FBS players in total tackles, earning him second-team All-American honors.

Instead of declaring for the NFL draft, Gray returned for his fourth season to perfect his craft and elevate his draft stock. His leadership will be essential this season to help guide the younger players that round out UNC's defense.

Power Echols

Junior linebacker Power Echols will complement Gray on the field once again. Last season, Echols recorded 70 solo tackles — fifth among all Power 5 linebackers. The Charlotte native showed consistent results in his sophomore campaign, posting four double-digit tackle games.

As the only two returning starting linebackers, Echols and Gray will continue spearheading North Carolina's reworked defense.

@smithhannahg | @charliehaines02

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