The biggest question mark surrounding the 2002 UNC football team is the defense. The Tar Heels face the daunting task of replacing eight starters from the top defensive unit in the ACC last season.
Anyone who tells you that hard and fast conclusions can be reached after witnessing the second day of spring practice – and the team was in shorts, not full pads – is just nuts. There is just too much sweat and effort between now and the first game of the season to place much faith in such observations.
What follows are my impressions -- impressions only.
The defensive coaches have their work cut out for them
The Front Seven
2001 starter Will Chapman is out for the spring and will undoubtedly re-claim his position in the fall. This spring, senior Eric Davis is lined up at right defensive tackle in the spot previously occupied by Chapman. However, it seems likely that Chapman will move over to the left tackle spot vacated by All-ACC performer Ryan Sims.
At left tackle, sophomore Chase Page appeared to be practicing with the first team defense today, despite being listed as third on the depth chart. Donti Coats is listed as ahead of Page on the official depth chart, but Page took a lot of snaps today.
Davis, who had an excellent off-season in strength and conditioning, seems poised to have a solid senior campaign.
Though some drop-off should be expected with the loss of Ryan Sims, this position can be a strength by next fall with Chapman at full speed.
The Tar Heels must replace both starters here, All-American Julius Peppers and senior Joey Evans.
Jocques Dumas has the challenge of attempting to replace Peppers. As odd as this may sound, Dumas may be a more consistent player than Peppers was at the same stage. Dumas played last season in a reserve role as a true freshman. Peppers, as a red-shirt freshman, made some spectacular plays when I saw him in spring practice. He also was almost as often completely out of the play.
Dumas does not make the same number of great plays that Peppers did at the same stage, but he also makes fewer mistakes. He has added bulk in the off-season, and now weighs in at 260 pounds. He needs to have a great spring and to continue his work ethic this summer.
Isaac Mooring is slotted to fill in at the other defensive end position. Mooring saw some action as a reserve last season as well. He is not possessed with a "body-builder's" physique, but has good speed and strength. His greatest asset could be that he seems to have good football instincts.
Mooring should be an adequate replacement for Joey Evans, while Dumas has the potential to be a star on the defensive line. Again, having to replace an All-American makes it logical that this position will not be the same force as it was a year ago.
All three linebackers from 2001 have graduated, leaving major holes to fill at this position.
The position I feel most comfortable about at this stage is the weakside or "WILL" linebacker position. Senior Malcolm Stewart seems poised to have a great final season.
Today it seemed to me that Stewart did an excellent job playing in space. He did well in coverage and has always had good rushing instincts. Stewart may actually meet or exceed the year that David Thornton had a year ago.
At the strong side linebacker spot, sophomore Clarence Gaddy is showing some promise.
Gaddy would have had at least three sacks today
Gaddy may blitz more often than his predecessor, Merceda Perry. Gaddy has good speed and today he would have nailed the quarterback on at least three occasions. He is another player who needs a great spring and to follow that up with dedication in the weight room during the summer.
The tough spot to fill is the "MIKE" position, and my take is that the Tar Heels just aren't ready to go to battle with what they have at this spot. An injury has sidelined putative starter Robert Harris, and the coaches appear to be struggling to find an adequate replacement for Quincy Monk.
Walk-on Sean Williams is currently getting the most reps with the first team, and though he is giving it all he has, my first impression is that this is the one position where a true freshman could find himself in contention for a starter's spot next fall. Devellen Bullard is still recovering from a injury and is practicing in a no-contact jersey. By the fall, Bullard could also very well contend for the nod at this position.
The Tar Heels are fortunate to be able to field a talented secondary in 2001, and it is clearly the strength of the defense. It is also likely the fastest group of players
Dexter Reid thwarts Jarwarski Pollock from making a catch
Junior Dexter Reid is an experienced and talented free safety who may be the biggest hitter on the defense. He could contend for All-ACC honors this season with a great year. Depth is a bit of a concern here, as walk-on Michael Harris, a former running back, has been converted to free safety.
Sophomore Chris Curry [who has undergone a number change from 40 to 12], played as a true freshman last season and was number two on the depth chart at both free and strong safety last season. Backing up Currry is Defonte Coleman, who wrested a starting job away from Billy-Dee Greenwood in 2000. Coleman has battled injuries, and is still practicing in a no-contact jersey. Coleman is said to be on the way back to 100%, and if so, could contend for the starter's spot there by the fall.
Michael Waddell, a second-team All-ACC performer a year ago, returns at right corner. Waddell is the fastest player to ever play for
His reserve is Derrick Johnson, who also backed up that position a year ago.
Kevin Knight saw a lot of the field last season as the nickel back in the secondary. This year, he moves over to left corner to replace Errol Hood. Though Hood had great technique at corner, he lacked the speed that Knight possesses.
When the Tar Heels line up in the nickel this season, Knight will play that position as he did a year ago, and reserve Derrick Johnson will move out to the left cornerback spot.
The Tar Heels have some major holes to fill next season, without doubt. The critical spots at this juncture appear to be the "MIKE" linebacker spot and depth in the front four.