North Carolina’s defensive line is supposed to be the strongest unit on the team. With most of its starters, including some upperclassmen back, the team had talked about how excited they were to see them perform.
It was only Day Six of training camp on Thursday, but UNC coach Larry Fedora has been at the forefront of singing their praises.
“I really do feel good about where our D-Line is at right now,” he said Thursday. “Again, we’ve got a lot of guys with experience up there and it’s showing in practice. “
But the defensive line took a hit earlier this week when UNC announced that it was suspending three of them for selling their team-issued sneakers.
The linemen were among 13 football players suspended for selling the Air Jordan 3 Retro shoes in January. The university self-reported the secondary NCAA violation in February.
Senior defensive end Malik Carney, arguably the team’s most productive defensive lineman, was among those suspended. He will miss four games. Tomon Fox, who was also expected to be a key contributor, and Tyrone Hopper were also suspended four games. Together, those three players combined for 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss last season.
That means UNC’s younger players will have to step up.
“Having those guys that (have) talent and raw talent, especially young guys like (linebacker) Chris Collins, I think these guys can help us early,” Carney said Tuesday. “Guys like (defensive end) Trey Morrison, he has a lot of talent, real good with his feet. Those guys can help us.”
But the loss of Carney, Fox and Hopper will cause the Tar Heels to lose not only production, but what they desperately needed last year after an injury-riddled season.
When UNC’s season was sidetracked by injuries last year, the team had to rely on younger players, who lacked experience. The Tar Heels struggled and went 3-9.
UNC will however, be allowed to stagger the suspensions of its defensive lineman.
Carney will sit out games against ECU, UCF, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, while Fox will sit against Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Georgia Tech. All other suspensions will begin with the season opener at Cal on Sept. 1.
Cunningham said the NCAA granted UNC’s request to have those suspensions staggered to protect the health and safety of its players, being that three played the same position.
Junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said despite the time his teammates will miss, he believes the reserves can make up for it.
“It’s next man up,” he said. “You get an opportunity to get on the field and you’ve got to execute. We know that certain guys are going to be out, but we’re not going to make an excuse.
“Whoever is on the field, we expect them to execute and play as if they were going to start all along.”
On Sept. 1, against Cal, everyone will see.