Greg Barnes: Darius Powell. Wilson doesn't get enough credit for the work he did against the run last fall, so what defensive line coach John Blake needs the most this season is a viable pass rusher on the other end of the line. But it's not as though Powell will lock down the position through camp as much as other players will simply be playing catch-up. Darrius Massenburg sat out spring ball due to injury, Vince Jacobs moved to defensive end from tight end and the incoming freshmen (and Joseph Townsend) will have to learn the ropes before earning playing time, much less a starting spot.
Don Callahan: I think Quinton Coples will eventually be the starting weak side defensive end. Obviously, he's going to be behind the other candidates because of his late arrival so you'll see someone like Greg Elleby or Massenburg or maybe even tackles Tydreke Powell or Townsend starting against McNeese State while Coples moves up the ladder.
Buck Sanders: Greg and Don illustrated that there are too many variables to give a hard-and-fast answer to this question before fall camp. I see Powell as a third-down rusher, not an every down weak side defensive end, and I believe the staff will look hard at other options. Can Townsend play defensive end? Might Wilson move to the weak side? Can Jacobs adjust quickly to the position? How ready are the true freshmen? In reality, it is likely that the staff does not know how this will end up.
2) How will the two-deep at defensive tackle shake out?
Sanders: Sometimes you have to take spring hype with a boulder of salt, but if Aleric Mullins lives up to the comments made by many of his teammates, he's taken his game to another level. With Blake's' get-up-the-field, penetrating, no-holds-barred philosophy of coaching the defensive line, I see Mullins and Marvin Austin as the starters, with Cam Thomas coming in on short-yardage situations, and Tydreke Powell and Townsend providing fresh reinforcements to keep up the pressure as the tackles rotate. With the options that Blake has, he can afford to be even more aggressive in defensive line play in 2008. I expect him to use all the weapons at his disposal.
Callahan: This is a tough question to answer because UNC has three very good three-technique tackles – Austin, Tydreke Powell and Townsend. All three are too good to keep out of the defensive line two-deep. Spring starting tackles Austin and Mullins will likely be the first string tackles. Regardless, this was the position that faced the most rotations throughout each game last fall.
Barnes: The one player on the defensive line that didn't get enough credit last season was Cam Thomas, primarily due to his ankle injury struggles. When healthy, the 330-pound junior has proven to be effective against the run, which is why I believe that Thomas will start at nose tackle for Blake, with Austin providing a pass-rushing option at the other tackle spot. On obvious passing downs, Thomas will be replaced by either Aleric Mullins or Tydreke Powell, who will provide quality talent and depth in their backup roles up front.
3) Does this team have sufficient quality depth at cornerback?
Callahan: After Kendric Burney and Charles Brown, UNC lacks proven cornerbacks. Considering that UNC employed the nickel formation several times a game, it's important to have three reliable cornerbacks – if not four or five.
Sanders: A couple of pleasant surprises may help with depth at corner. One, Richie Rich played adequately at nickel back with limited practice time – he was moved during the bye week last year. I have trouble predicting a breakout year for Hemby, just because players who have been as snake-bit by injury as Hemby have an uphill battle to live up to their potential. If Hemby can become the reliable third corner Don speaks of, and if Rich and Johnny White can contribute, then UNC might have sufficient depth there. Too many "ifs" and "mights" in that sentence, however.
Barnes: Brown and Burney are ACC-caliber talents in their starting cornerback spots, but the Tar Heels are extremely limited behind those two. Moving tailbacks Rich and White to cornerback last fall was more about filling out the depth chart than putting serious talent in the secondary. I think the key defensive player to watch in fall camp will be Hemby. A highly-touted recruit that UNC beat out Florida for in 2005, Hemby has battled injuries his entire career but showcased his abilities in the spring – so much so that JuCo defensive back Melvin Williams was moved to safety.
4) Will freshmen linebackers prove ready to step in right away?
Barnes: They are going to have to be ready. While Mark Paschal, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant are penciled in to start at linebacker, most observers are anxiously waiting to see how Chase Rice returns from injury. Even so, that leaves LB coach Tommy Thigpen with four legitimate options in his position group – far too few to hope for a successful season. So the freshmen will be expected to learn the defense quickly, and there's no doubt that there is some serous talent in this group. One name kept coming up during the ACC Football Kickoff last weekend in Georgia – Kevin Reddick.
Callahan: Freshmen linebackers will be major contributors on special teams. However, they will only see backup roles within the linebacker corps as UNC has four starter-quality linebackers: Paschal, Sturdivant, Carter and Rice. Due to his instincts and lack of true middle linebackers, Reddick will see the most time among the large group of freshmen. Okakpu and Brown will be in the mix for second string weak side linebacker.
Sanders: In terms of new defensive players who might line up in a linebacker position on the field, I'd pay as much attention to Herman Davidson and particularly Melvin Williams as any of the true freshmen "linebackers." New defensive coordinator Everett Withers is known for his creative use of nickel formations, and the typical "linebacker" group may change significantly under his direction. Da'Norris Searcy is another weapon at Withers' disposal. As talented and ready as Reddick may be, the list of true freshmen who've made immediate contributions at middle linebacker at the college level is a very short one. Unless there is an injury, Thigpen will have the luxury of working in Okakpu and Brown on special teams and when the outcome of the game has been decided.
5) Who will be the breakout player on defense?
Sanders: Since Sturdivant made honorable mention on several freshmen All-American lists, he's already "broken out" at least to a degree. Carter, had he not been impeded by some injury issues last year, might have had a similar year and gets my vote as the leading candidate for breakout player. My wild-card pick is Vince Jacobs. If he winds up on the two-deep at weak side defensive end, and he is as good a bet as any to do so, he could put up surprising numbers this fall. He has the physical tools to excel at that spot and is more physically mature than the other contenders.
Barnes: Either Carter or Sturdivant. Both linebackers spent their high school careers under center due to their immense athleticism, and their speed/size combination has not been seen in Chapel Hill this decade. Both players displayed flashes of their potential last fall, and now with a full season under their belts, the potential is there for one, if not both, of the players to make a case for distinction as a rising star in the ACC.
Callahan: Last fall, Wilson was the best defender nobody talked about – and one of the most consistent. He didn't collect the sack numbers like others, but he constantly pressured the quarterback and was a force against the run. His numbers will improve to undeniable levels this fall while he becomes one of the leaders of the defense.