Tar Heel mantra for D-line in flux: Next man in
First came the expected losses from the defensive line, as Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson graduated after starting a combined 67 games. Then came some unexpected ones, as senior Shawn Underwood and redshirt freshman Greg Webb were removed from the team before training camp. And that might not be all — the eligibility of senior tackle Ethan Farmer, who started all 13 games last season, is in question because of an academic issue.
As a result, after three straight years of having a senior all-ACC performer leading the defensive front — Quinton Coples, Sylvester Williams and Kareem Martin — North Carolina could open the season without a defensive end or tackle who has ever made a college start.
“We had a few casualties but that’s part of the game,” UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “We deal with the guys that are here. My philosophy has always been ‘Next man in.’”
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said Thursday that Farmer’s status was “really out of my hands.” The senior — who had 30 tackles last season — has been practicing with the team, but not fully. During the portion of Thursday’s practice that was open to the media, Farmer participated in positional drills but stayed on the sidelines during 11-on-11s.
“It’s still a little bit up in the air but we feel positive that things are going to go his direction,” Gilmore said. “But we have a plan with or without him. We’ll know what to do either way. I’m operating on a worst-case scenario as if he wouldn’t be here, and just keep him alive so if he does end up getting ruled eligible, we’ll just fit him right in and keep going.”
At least the position group is used to the uncertainty by now. Ends Jessie Rogers and Robert Dinkins have moved inside while sophomore Mikey Bart switched from bandit to end in order to create more depth up front. Fedora said the team needs at least five guys to rotate at the two tackle spots.
Senior Devonté Brown, who played in 21 games in a reserve role at tackle over the last two seasons, returns.
Bart, who started at bandit against Boston College and Virginia as a true freshman, said he liked the simplicity of playing defensive end.
“Bandit you have two different assignments on every little play,” Bart said. “D-end is sort of like, you stay in one gap and make sure you beat the guy in front of you.”
Gilmore turned the lack of a star player on the front into a positive.
“Everyone has to contribute and be focused,” Gilmore said. “I think it lends to a great situation. I’m really excited because they’ve all got talent — they’re just waiting to be named that next guy. It’s not like we’re void of talent. It’s just a guy hasn’t had an opportunity to come to the forefront.”
Though they may be inexperienced, there are plenty of options. Junior Justin Thomason, who made 22 tackles and appeared in all 13 games last year, appears to be the frontrunner for one tackle spot, while Rogers has also been taking reps with the 1s in Farmer’s absence. Possible starting ends include redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon and sophomore Junior Gnonkonde.
Gilmore mentioned Drennon as someone who could emerge as a great pass rusher, while Fedora said that redshirt freshman Nazair Jones has bulked up from 250 to 295 pounds in order to play inside.
Opponents will also have to account for senior bandit Norkeithus Otis, who had 7.5 sacks last season, which should help relieve pressure on UNC’s front.
Still, there must be a limit for how many players the Tar Heels can afford to lose in one position group — even before the inevitable injuries take their toll.
“We got what we got,” Gilmore said. “I’m going to coach them up and we’re going to be the best that we can be. I’m not making any excuses, that’s for sure.”
Follow Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.