Young DL Showing Signs of Growth

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defensive line turned in its best showing of the season in Death Valley last weekend, which bodes well for a position group rotating in five underclassmen.

UNC held the Tigers to 92 rushing yards on 2.1 yards per carry in its 50-35 loss on Saturday. The Tar Heel defensive front also sacked Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson (27-of-36 passing for 435 yards, 6 TD) three times for 19 yards.

“We got pressure and we weren’t blitzing a whole lot,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Wednesday’s practice. “We got pressure with four and sometimes five, so I thought that was probably one of the better games that we’ve played on the defensive line this year. Hopefully we’ll keep progressing from there.”

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore agreed with Fedora, pointing to the growth of his underclassmen.

“We’ve got a bunch of young guys,” Gilmore said. “I think they’re starting to gel and getting used to playing with one another, understanding what’s expected and just maturing, to be honest with you. I think they’ve done a good job to this point and hopefully they’ll continue to get better.”

Red-shirt freshman Dajaun Drennon was the lone underclassmen to start up front at Clemson, although with senior defensive tackle Devonte Brown sidelined due to injury and freshman tackle Tyler Powell hampered by an ankle injury, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder slid over and played the 3-technique for most of Saturday’s game. Sophomore end Junior Gnonkonde took the bulk of the reps on the edge, while redshirt freshman Nazair Jones rotated in at both tackle positions.

Drennon, Gnonkonde and Jones combined for eight tackles and five tackles for loss against the Tigers.

More importantly, UNC’s defensive front allowed one explosive play on the ground – a 12-yard run by C.J. Davidson – and that occurred on Clemson’s final drive as it was running out the clock. UNC had allowed eight runs of 16 yards or more in its previous three games.

Jones attributed the improvement to a better understanding of the playbook and learning from game film.

“Every time we’ve watched film before, there have been guys that weren’t in their gap and that’s where the ball goes and they break it for 20-30-40 yards,” Jones said. “We just put more focus into that after the ECU game and it showed in the next week. We’re going to continue to play better.”

The most improvement, at least with regard to the underclassmen, should come over the next several weeks, according to Gilmore. The 29-year college coaching veteran said that, in his experience, it takes players seeing their first significant action about 6-7 games to mature into their roles.

Veteran linemen Ethan Farmer and Justin Thomason have provided leadership in an attempt to hasten the learning curve.

“The biggest thing is that they’re turning and running to the football,” Gilmore said. “They come here and they don’t understand that concept. They think if they play the line of scrimmage then they’ve done their job. At this level, guys have to be able to turn and run and make plays down the field.”

UNC’s long history of quality defensive linemen hasn’t been lost on the underclassmen attempting to elevate their names to the same level of NFL players such as Kareem Martin, Quinton Coples and Robert Quinn.

“I know people have been saying that I’ve been playing like a freshman and that I need to play up to a higher level,” Drennon said. “Playing behind Kareem last year, I had to set a higher standard, but I’m just trying to get a feel for the game and better myself every game.”

Drennon and Jones, both with a full redshirt season in place, appear to be in the best position to make a significant jump as the season progresses.

“They’re good athletes to be young and for their position,” Gilmore said. “We’re getting after the quarterback a little bit. Nazair has learned how to play the run better. He’s learned how to get his pads down and play a little bit more physical. He’s gained some weight and that’s helped him in that department. And Dajaun has continued to improve as a pass rusher.”

The “win now” refrain of college football doesn’t allow for much of a youth reprieve, however.

“Nobody cares about how young they are,” Gilmore said. “All they care about is production.”

UNC’s defensive line will continue its evolution against a veteran offensive line when Virginia Tech comes to town this weekend.

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