Carolina Football Exam Week: Grading the Defense

Brant Wilkerson-New

One of the slowest weeks of the college athletics calendar has arrived as players buckle down to finish the fall semester off with final exams and coaches on the road recruiting.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an in-depth look at each position group in the North Carolina defense and give the Tar Heels a grade for their performance in the regular season.

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Defensive Line — B+

Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge deserve A+ grades for their play this season, but behind them, the Tar Heels had a hard time getting much from anyone until Ray Vohasek came on strong toward the end of the season.

Crawford (49 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) ate up gaps while Strowbridge (41 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks) routinely commanded double-teams on the pass rush, freeing up the rest of Carolina’s defense to get to the quarterback.

In limited action, Vohasek finished with 13 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack.

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Inside Linebackers — A+

Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel went from zero career starts to a combined 189 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles and two recovered.

Not bad at all.

Surratt, a first-team All-ACC selection, led the Tar Heels with 110 tackles and made the signature defensive play of the season with his game-saving interception vs. Duke. Gemmel, meanwhile, made his own share of big-time stops and hustle plays.

Beyond Gemmel and Surratt, the Tar Heels were thin here too, with Dominique Ross sliding over to the inside a few times while true freshman Khadry Jackson saw snaps, too.

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Outside Linebackers — B+

Tomon Fox was a terror in the backfield, finishing with 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and when coaches inserted Ross on the outside vs. Clemson, the defense got a major boost.

The 6-4, 230-pound Ross is a perfect fit that the versatility defensive coordinator Jay Bateman wants in his defense, capable of excelling as a pass rusher or dropping into a nickel role against receivers in the slot. His tackling was among the best on the entire defense.

In what’s a recurring theme for the defense, depth was an issue until later in the season when Tyrone Hopper and Allen Cater started to see more snaps.

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Safeties — B-

The loss of Myles Wolfolk was perhaps the toughest injury Carolina had all season, as the ballhawking safety only finished three games but still managed three interceptions.

Senior Myles Dorn managed to hold it all together, finishing third on the team with 78 tackles and two interceptions while rotating between both safety spots and helping an inexperienced secondary stay afloat.

True freshman Cam’Ron Kelly, who suffered a season-ending injury vs. Clemson, showed promise, as did Don Chapman, who ended up with 20 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

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Cornerbacks — C-

It was a tough year for the Carolina cornerbacks, and it wasn’t entirely their fault. Patrice Rene went down in the second game, Trey Morrison was banged up all season, and the Tar Heels had to rely on true freshman Storm Duck, redshirt freshman DeAndre Hollins and backup Greg Ross all season.

Because of some of the challenges at corner, Bateman had to adjust the approach to help the secondary and sacrificed some pressure.

Duck and Hollins had great moments and, as expected, they had freshman mistakes. When healthy, Morrison was excellent and, thanks to the experience Duck and Hollins got this season, the Tar Heels figure to be strong at the position next season.

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Overall — C+

All in all, it was a heck of a jump for the defense, going from 105 nationally in total defense in 2018 to 60 in its first season under Bateman.

At its best, the unit put the Tar Heels in position to beat Clemson, but as the season wore on, depth issues and inexperience were too much to overcome in key games vs. Pittsburgh and Virginia.

It’s clear the defense is on the right track, but due to depth, there were times Carolina had to hold back in its pressure to help out the secondary.

There’s justification for a higher grade based on the massive improvement, but that massive improvement made the Tar Heels a little above average on defense this season, which speaks to just how bad things had gotten over the past two seasons.

Bateman admitted late in the season that he could have done a better job developing depth earlier on. Who knows how that could have played out down the stretch, but it was understandably a tough call in one close game after another.

Given some of the injuries the group dealt with this season, depth certainly won't be a concern moving forward after so many youngsters were forced into action.

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