CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It took less than a week for true freshman Aaron Crawford to make a training camp splash. Jalen Dalton followed a similar route during spring ball, while redshirt freshmen Jeremiah Clarke, Robert Dinkins and Malik Carney worked behind the scenes last fall before emerging as options this August.
Despite their youth, North Carolina’s rookie crop of defensive linemen are not only providing much-needed depth up front, but also competing for playing time.
All five defensive linemen received snaps with the ones or twos in either the base 4-3 or base nickel sets during UNC’s fourth practice of training camp on Thursday.
“Nobody is inheriting any positions that they had last year, and so for me, I think trying to provide opportunities for guys to show me what they can and can’t do in camp, especially early, is extremely important,” defensive line coach Tray Scott said after practice. “And then as we get closer, the cream always rises to the top. That’s how we’ve approached it with the young guys.”
Clarke, who Scott said benefitted from heavy reps in the spring, is the only freshman running with the first team in the base 4-3. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle is working alongside senior Justin Thomason on the interior with senior Jessie Rogers and junior Junior Gnonkonde on the edges.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters he called out Clarke’s name three or four times on Wednesday for making plays.
Crawford piqued the fan base’s interest this summer with his weight room exploits, and his play has only continued that trend.
“He is strong as all get out in the weight room,” Scott said. “That kid works his tail off. He’s really worked on trying to get his body a little bit more compact. We asked him to lose a little bit of weight and he did. He’s continued to progress.”
When asked about standouts along his defensive line, Fedora highlighted Crawford’s efforts: “He’s shown some really nice things early in camp. If he can continue to do that throughout camp, that’s going to be pretty special.”
The prized recruit is Dalton, a heralded defensive end that enrolled in January. The Clemmons, N.C. native now stands 6-foot-6, 280 pounds after seven months on campus.
“Jalen is a true freshman, but that sucker has so many reps because he had the opportunity to go through spring,” Scott said. “He’s a true freshman and we have to continue to remind ourselves of that because he should have graduated in May. He’s really coming along, continuing to hold his weight and continuing to get acclimated. I’m really excited about him.”
Not included in the aforementioned group of defensive linemen is another four-star prospect in Jason Strowbridge, who is currently rehabbing from an offseason foot injury.
Scott said there is “not really a clear-cut leader” out of the older linemen to help guide the freshman class, although he pointed to Thomason, Rogers, Nazair Jones and Mikey Bart as players that have influence and are learning how to lead.
It’s also important to note that UNC has not completed its NCAA-mandated five-day acclimatization period. The first day in full pads comes on Friday, which begins the process of separating the contenders and pretenders, especially with regard to freshmen that want to compete for playing time.
“When you start throwing those pads on and you can’t run away from contact, with us wanting them to play as aggressive as we want them to play, you really see who has that attitude and that physical mindset,” Scott said. “At the end of the day, they can’t run away from the physicality. We’re never going to stop.”
Freshmen Shaking Up DL
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