CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Tyler Powell’s versatility along the defensive line is proving to be beneficial for Gene Chizik 10 days into training camp.
Much of the defensive line talk during the first two weeks of August has centered on the stack of talent on the interior, starting with projected starters Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton and filtering down through players such as Robert Dinkins, Jeremiah Clarke, Aaron Crawford and Marlon Dunlap.
Discussion of the end positions, however, has been noticeably absent outside of veteran Mikey Bart, who has locked down the starting spot at strongside. The primary issue is that Larry Fedora and his coaching staff do not discuss injuries, so returning starter Dajaun Drennon’s absence on the weakside has avoided headlines. Drennon, who suffered a broken right foot during spring practice, has been sidelined thus far in camp, thereby opening the door for other Tar Heels to work in with the first team.
Sophomore end Malik Carney filled Drennon’s spot until UNC’s first scrimmage last Wednesday, which is when Powell staked his claim with the ones despite arriving in Chapel Hill as a defensive tackle.
“Powell’s really become a swing guy for us,” Chizik said on Monday. “We feel like he can play inside and outside… I think he’s done a nice job up to this point.”
Powell turned heads in his college opener against Liberty in 2014, drawing praise from the defensive staff for grading out tops amongst the defensive tackles. Injuries quickly deterred Powell’s progress, sidelining him for parts of the ’14 and ’15 seasons. He began last season at tackle, but injuries at the end position forced him outside late in the year.
Chizik estimated that Powell took more snaps at end than tackle by the end of the season, and that’s a trend that has continued during the early part of camp.
“Right now, it’s a little more outside than inside, so it’s switched a little bit, but that gives us some flexibility with him,” Chizik said.
Powell, who is down to 275 pounds after dropping 20 pounds during the offseason, is headlining a group, which includes freshmen Allen Cater, Tomon Fox and Jason Strowbridge, seeking to fill Drennon’s absence.
Their efforts within the overall defensive line construct have bolstered line coach Tray Scott’s position group. As a result, the defensive line as a whole has made significant strides since 2015.
“I think they’re just understanding where they fit in the scheme really well,” Chizik said. “I think once you do that, the amount of physicality that you can come and bring to the table every week changes because there’s not a lot of thinking going on. As you guys know, if you don’t have a defensive line, you don’t have a defense, so they’ve shown some progress in that. Our pass rush, our four-man pass rush, I think we’ve gotten better at that.
“So they’re still a work in progress, but I think they’re further along [now] than they were this time last year.”