North Carolina

After missing a season with a knee injury, this UNC DE can’t wait to sack Cal’s QB

Tomon Fox redshirted the 2016 season after a knee injury.
Tomon Fox redshirted the 2016 season after a knee injury. UNC

Nervous? For North Carolina’s season opener? To redshirt freshman defensive end Tomon Fox, the notion is laughable. He has longed for Saturday for almost a year.

“Getting after that quarterback, really,” Fox said. “That’s what I can’t wait for.”

The Tar Heels opens its season Saturday against California.

Fox’s college career started off painfully promising. In the first two games of the 2016 season — the only two he played — he forced a fumble, added a sack and totaled four tackles. He wasn’t supposed to redshirt, but that changed when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice.

In one day, Fox’s trajectory jerked from freshman stardom to the UNC bench.

The injury was the most serious Fox had ever experienced. And at first, he was crushed at the lost opportunity to spend his first season at North Carolina as a dominant defender. But Fox did not stay discouraged. He realized he was still a part of the team, and his teammates still needed his support. No injury could change that.

So he resolved to keep contributing in any way he could.

“I was just with them every step of the way,” Fox, who’s 6-3 and 245 pounds, said. “Like at practice, I was still engaged. At games, I was cheering them on. And anything I could do I was there to help.”

He used his time on the sidelines to fine-tune his technical knowledge, but the main lesson Fox carried with him was the importance of supporting his fellow Tar Heels. Even now, his goals for the upcoming season are to make his role pivotal, always help the team and never forfeit a major play.

During the offseason, he spent as much as five hours a day in the treatment room working to get his knee healthy. Now, finally back at 100 percent — he feels faster, and stronger.

Of course, returning to fighting form was not a seamless restoration. Fox said the hardest part was getting re-accustomed to the feel of playing after so much time on the sideline. Come game time against Cal, Fox will focus on making sure his assignment is covered, the play calls are memorized and his job is flawlessly executed.

Despite the challenges, Fox has benefited from his hard work to return to full health. He is now one of three underclassmen defenders listed as a starter on the depth chart.

“Michael Jordan said ‘the ceiling is the roof,’” said junior linebacker Andre Smith. “That’s kind of my confidence in him. That’s my confidence in everyone.”

What sealed head coach Larry Fedora’s faith was Fox’s strong showing early last season — and the accompanying knowledge about playing a college game that you can only attain firsthand. For a team lacking experience particularly on offense, every morsel of prior playing time that could bolster a strong defensive front is invaluable.

“Tomon has had a great camp,” Fedora said. “He really has. I feel very comfortable with where he is… I think the experience that he got last year is really going to help him and I’m very confident with where he is right now.”

The uncertainty surrounding UNC’s offense has only heightened the demand for excellence on the defensive end. Last season, the Tar Heels allowed opponents an average of 408.1 yards per game with the nation’s No. 121 rushing defense and managed just one interception. Now, they’re expected to lead the team.

But Fox isn’t worried about any of that — the TV cameras, the fans, the critics. Fox doesn’t see any reason to be nervous. He believes his teammates are well prepared, and Cal redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers is a few days and one snap away from becoming a tackling target. How could Fox be anything but confident?

After all, he can finally play.

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