Defensive Line: Pieces In Place

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –-- Why all of this defensive optimism? Why should North Carolina fans expect the Tar Heels to be improved up front and better equipped to stop the run and rush the passer? Simply put, in place is the best combination of talent, experience and depth since 2001.

IC's Preseason Positional Analysis:
  • Quarterbacks: Baker's Big Shot
  • Running Backs: Searching For Depth
  • Linebackers: Position Rebuilt
  • Special Teams: 'Teams' Special

    "I can see out here at preseason practice, we're a lot more mature as a group on the front," defensive ends coach Brad Lawing said. "We've got some guys now with some playing experience, and with some guys that have played well before. That's carried over to this season – I can see already."

    Lawing said on Wednesday that if the Georgia Tech opener was tomorrow, the starting front line would be from left to right: Brian Rackley, Chase Page, Kyndraus Guy and Tommy Davis; with Hilee Taylor, Kentwan Balmer and Melik Brown figuring prominently in the ends' rotation, and Khalif Mitchell, Kenny Price and Shelton Bynum as backup tackles.

    Not a true or redshirt freshman in the bunch.

    "We have had to depend on (younger guys) out of necessity since I've been here," Lawing said. "Now they're older kids. In an ideal situation, four ends and four tackles is what you would like to be able to rotate through there."

    And with the noticeable increase of serviceable depth available, competition has returned to practice. In years past, Lawing admits he had to coach effort. He, along with UNC assistant Kenny Browning, doesn't have to get guys fired up this year during the dog days of preseason camp.

    "They know they can lose their job now," Lawing said.

    Browning moved back to defense to coach the tackles and Lawing concentrates on the ends. The two often work together as well, but having two coaches to divide the duties means double repetitions available in practice.

    "We can give them a little more individual attention now," Browning said. "It makes a big difference for them."

    Another reason for a veteran coaching tandem splitting duties on the defensive line is due to the natural progression of the defensive end position over the years. Zone pressure is a major concept, and an end have to be able to serve as much as a linebacker as a down lineman.

    "This is why we've gone to two coaches," Lawing said. "Because of it, we can spend a lot of our time going over drop stuff."

    Of course Browning hasn't been with the tackles long enough to fully gauge where that group stands right now, but he did say he has seen some progress individually in terms of technique and in attitude.

    Because of the rising level of depth, experience and talent, the Tar Heels will attempt to pressure the quarterback, or blitz, more often than last year's rate of about "25 percent of the time," according to John Bunting.

    "We hope that we can," Browning said. "Developing depth is a big reason we're able to do that this year. I'm not saying we're there yet, but that's one of out main objectives. We want to pressure the quarterback whether it's a five-man, six-man or seven-man rush."

    But being able to significantly improve pass rushing has a lot to do with stopping the run.

    "It has a lot of to do with putting them in passing situations," Browning explained. "The best way to pressure the quarterback is to make them throw the ball. Because you're anticipating the throw as opposed to them being in control based on down and distance. Then it's a situation where the defensive front has got to play run first always, and then react to the pass. At 3rd and 8, you can do it the other way around – rush the passer first and then react to the run."

    Beginning his first season as a starter, Rackley has come to appreciate the toil and pain that the UNC defense has had to work through during his previous years.

    "It feels good," he said. "I don't take it for granted. I work hard everyday. I've come a long way. I've matured a lot and I'm still maturing, just getting a feel for the game everyday.

    "My freshman year I got discouraged because I had older guys that were starting in front of me. But as I was getting older, I was getting a love and passion for the game. I knew that I could do it, now my time has arrived."

    Rackley has added 20 pounds and is up to 260 now, and is also mentoring Taylor, who said he's about 95 percent recovered from spring knee surgery.

    "We've got a mature group on the line this year," Taylor said. "Everybody knows all the mechanics and techniques, and I'm kind of just growing watching them – especially Brian Rackley.

    "I work with ‘Rack' everyday as far as getting your hands and technique right," Taylor said. "If you have good technique, you really don't need a lot of weight."

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