Spring Wrap-up: Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- With the 2011 Tar Heel spring football season concluded, the Inside Carolina staff reflects on what was learned and what key questions remain.

This is a staff that loves to rotate a lot of linemen on defense. Even though the coaches will want to keep some players (Quinton Coples, for example), on the field a lot, is this the best defensive line in the Davis era, in terms of being able to rotate defensive tackles and defensive ends?

Greg: Yes. Not only will UNC be able to rotate 8-9 defensive linemen, but players like Coples and Jared McAdoo are versatile enough to play both the tackle and end positions. That will give the staff valuable options in nickel and dime packages while also serving as insurance against injury.

Don: Although this year's defensive line will be very good, for the Davis era, the 2009 defensive line rotation was more impressive. In 2009, you had a game-changer in Robert Quinn coming off the edge, Tydreke Powell consistently making plays on the few snaps he saw, and underrated players in E.J. Wilson and Cam Thomas.

Buck: I agree with Greg on this one. Even though Robert Quinn was a rare commodity, I think Quinton Coples may be able to be just as effective this year, particularly with Donte Paige-Moss on the other side. The depth is there behind them at DE in Tim Jackson and Kareem Martin, and the addition of Sylvester Williams to an already stout defensive tackle group (Jordan Nix, Tydreke Powell, Jared McAdoo) that adds a couple of red-shirt freshmen (Quinton Alton and Ethan Farmer) – the depth across the line is more impressive than in '09. If the NCAA cooperates, the Heels will add Brandon Willis to this group. That's just ridiculous.

Quinton Coples made a point of saying after the spring game that everyone on the defensive line is a player that offenses will have to respect. Are there any "weak links" on the defensive line, and if not, how does that impact the play of the entire defense?

Don: While Sylvester Williams has received a ton of praise during the spring, he has to prove he can do it in live action. There are tons of stories of players that impress in practice, but go missing on game day. If he's able to live up to the hype, though, the starting defensive line will be very solid against the run and applying pressure to the passer. That will allow the linebackers to make more plays and help break in an inexperienced secondary.

Buck: Don's all over this one. Everybody knows that the weak link on UNC's defense should be the secondary, that's where the most losses are – but if the Tar Heels are able to rotate fresh bodies in on the defensive line at the talent level of last year, which I think is a given, they'll be able to get enough push with their front four to allow the secondary and linebackers to play Cover 2 behind them and limit the damage opponents can inflict on the secondary.

Greg: After watching Sylvester Williams and hearing the praise about the JuCo transfer throughout the football program, I don't believe there are any weak links in this defensive line. Defensive tackle was the only question mark coming into the spring simply because Jared McAdoo played outside for a bulk of 2010 and Jordan Nix was inconsistent at times. With Williams adding needed depth and talent at DT alongside Tydreke Powell, this front four will be one of the best in the country.

This spring the Tar Heels were looking for someone to play strong side linebacker, and it appears that Darius Lipford has his name penciled in that spot – Butch Davis, however, says depth is a potential problem for 2011. Will UNC be able to address this problem in the fall?

Don: There's no shortage of talent at the linebacker position and it will receive an additional boost with a recruiting class that included four-star prospects Travis Hughes and Norkeithus Otis, and underrated Keeon Virgile, who the coaching staff sees a lot of potential in.

Greg: Davis relies on his linebacking corps to help fill out his special teams units, so I'm assuming his depth reference pertains to that aspect because the numbers don't lie – UNC will have 13 linebackers on the roster come August. But Davis is all about competition, so keeping that third spot open through the fall will force Lipford, Curtis Campbell and Herman Davidson to work hard through the summer while giving incoming recruit Travis Hughes hope that he can crash the party.

Buck: The depth that is there in the linebacking corps comes from players that have been career reserves. Last year the Tar Heels could bring a player like Zach Brown off the bench, or insert him as a starter if needed – I don't see that type of talented depth at linebacker yet. Don could be right that one of those talented true freshmen might become that fourth linebacker or even a starter this fall. Greg thinks a solid starter should emerge from the group of Lipford, Campbell, or Davidson, but if injury rears its ugly head here, the Tar Heels might be struggling for answers.

Is safety UNC's weakest position group overall? The staff has moved Josh Hunter to safety and he had a fairly impressive spring game. Could there be some additional movement in the fall?

Greg: Yes. Tre Boston joined Hunter as young corners that were moved to safety in an attempt to boost the talent level for a position group loaded with career backups. I'm not sure that there are any potential moves left to make, so the likely expectation is for Hunter and Boston to improve over the summer while hoping one of the true freshmen makes a splash.

Buck: For those who must have something to worry about, safety is as good a position as any to focus your concern. It's conceivable that the starters that trot out against James Madison will never have played safety before. UNC has two experienced players in Matt Merletti and Jonathan Smith, but may instead line up with two sophomores in Josh Hunter and Tre Boston. These players will get tested early and often.

Don: Because of how UNC recruits defensive backs – the staff stays away from recruiting too many "true" safety prospects but instead signs physical cornerbacks with size that can run – there's always going to be shuffling in the secondary. It probably is the weakest position group, but that's going to happen when you lose a four-year and three-year starter.

Charles Brown didn't play in the spring game, but has 22 starts at corner for the Tar Heels. Jabari Price starts at the other corner. Mywan Jackson has some experience, but beyond those three there is not a lot of depth or experience. UNC signed four corners this February – will any of these true freshmen have a shot to break through in 2011?

Don: Alex Dixon was the top cornerback prospect on UNC's board. If he's as good as the staff thinks, he's the most likely to see playing time this fall. With that said, UNC would red-shirt the entire group if it could.

Greg: Probably not at corner, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one of them earn the nickel spot, which is essentially a starting position in Davis's defensive scheme. Brown flourished in that role as a true freshman in '07 and all of the incoming recruits possess the size needed to play that position.

Buck: Every year it seems as though a true freshman or two steps up and earns a significant role on offense or defense, and if I had to guess I'd say that one of the cornerback recruits has a chance to make a move in 2011, maybe even to the starter's spot. Remember, athleticism is more important than raw strength at corner, and while starting or playing a true freshman in a significant role may not be optimal, sometimes it will wind up being the best option.

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