CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defensive line has a few holes to fill, but a surplus of bodies to fill them entering the 2017 football season.
Injuries up front early last season allowed for plenty of playing time for less experienced Tar Heel defensive linemen, which proved invaluable as the team worked through its schedule and players such as defensive tackle Jalen Dalton and defensive end Dajaun Drennon worked back into the rotation.
However, the youth and inexperience, when paired with Gene Chizik’s conservative defensive scheme, did not allow for strong statistical production. UNC gave up 227.3 rushing yards per game (109th nationally) and ranked 95th in footballoutsiders.com’s defensive line ratings, which combines nine different metrics, such as adjusted sack rate and raw breakdowns of success rates on various rushing attempts.
UNC lost two defensive line starters from last year’s squad – end Mikey Bart and tackle Nazair Jones – but returns the bulk of its three-deep. Jones and Bart were needed veteran leaders last fall, and Drennon has assumed that role entering his senior season.
“I feel like I’m going to step up more as a leader seeing that this is my last season at Carolina,” Drennon said. “I feel like I’ve been around the system the longest of anybody on the field. I have a lot of knowledge I can share with the guys.”
Drennon only played six games last year, amassing five solo tackles, due to a preseason foot injury followed by a hamstring injury midway through the season. Drennon, who started at end in 2014-15, the time off the field helped him zero in on the player he was, and the one he wanted to become.
“I feel like at certain times I may have gotten complacent,” Drennon said. “Like I knew everything. So not being able to play… I still wanted to be around football so I wanted to teach myself. So I just did a lot more film study. It was a real big year for me, even though I didn’t get to contribute on the field, I got better mentally.”
Redshirt freshman Tomon Fox is also looking to make up for lost time. The Lawrenceville, Ga. native was thrust into the spotlight last season, playing significant snaps in the first two games before suffering a knee injury that ended his season.
“I just felt like I worked hard to get where I was at, and then to get injured was kind of a shock because I had never really been injured before,” Fox said. “It was kind of disappointing that I had to go in, get playing time and then lose all of that and start all over.”
Now back to full health, the 6-foot-3 defensive end sees himself on an even playing field with the rest of his teammates. That’s not a negative, though, as he hailed the depth of the defensive line unit as something that should keep guys fresh throughout a full season.
“We definitely have a better rotation now,” Fox said. “Instead of being in for 10 plays straight and being gassed we can rotate guys in.”
Larry Fedora has described his defensive line, which he says is 17 players deep, as a strong point of the team. With defensive line coach Deke Adams back in charge, Fedora says this spring is about getting this large collection of linemen ready to go because at some point next fall, each one will be called on.
“It’s always about building as much depth as possible,” Fedora said. “You’ve never seen a season where 11 people make it through the whole season.”