Spring Wrap-up: Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- With the 2010 Tar Heel spring football season concluded, the Inside Carolina staff reflects on what's been learned and what key questions remain.

1. One of the primary goals for the defense this spring was to give some of the guys on the two- and three-deep some repetitions. What did you see this spring from those guys that should be encouraging for UNC?

Don Callahan - Mywan Jackson was very encouraging and not just because of the interceptions he had. During the spring game he looked instinctive defending both the pass and the run. He also flashed his tackling ability.

Buck Sanders – Mywan Jackson, Michael McAdoo, Herman Davidson, Dion Guy – those guys all really made significant progress this spring and flashed big-time ability in the Spring Game. Josh Hunter had an interception as well, and Terry Shankle had a couple of nice tackles.

Linwan Euwell didn't get a lot of attention, but was as good on the stat sheet as anyone – two sacks, two tackles-for-loss.

Greg Barnes - Deunta Williams tabbed Dion Guy, Michael McAdoo and Mywan Jackson as his defensive MVPs. Throw in Herman Davidson and Zach Brown and their game-high six tackles, and there's plenty of reason to believe that the drop off from the first unit to the second will be minimal. That's crucial, because depth is what separates the elite programs from the good programs. Butch Davis indicated in early March that building depth was an emphasis this spring, and based on Saturday, that plan was a success.

2. Matt Merletti has been penciled in as the nickel back for the defense, but has been sidelined this spring healing from injury. Do you see any potential for another player to step up and seize that position based on their performance this spring?

Greg Barnes - The coaching staff prefers a Charles Brown-type at nickel – solid against the run, but plenty capable of serving as a third cornerback. With Merletti out, it appeared as though sophomore Gene Robinson would be the frontrunner for the job, but Mywan Jackson's playmaking ability on Saturday may have been the subheading of the Spring Game. While Jackson may still be on the small side in defending the run, if he can prove that he's a worthy option at cornerback, the staff may be willing to slide Brown over to nickel, where they've wanted the senior ever since he arrived in '07.

Buck Sanders – Merletti would have been the nickel back in 2009 had he not been injured, and that makes him a good bet to win the job when he returns this fall, if, as expected, he returns 100 percent healthy. That said, the staff really likes Gene Robinson, and he was the No. 2 nickel as a true freshman last year.

Given Mywan Jackson's performance on Saturday, however, if the staff wanted to shift to a corner to man the nickel spot, his ability might give them that option. At a minimum, Jackson coming on the way he has might allow the staff, as Greg suggests, to slide Brown to nickel and play Jackson at corner opposite Burney in nickel situations.

Don Callahan - It's still Merletti's job to lose, but Gene Robinson and Jonathan Smith have definitely used the spring to make up ground. Robinson is the future in UNC's secondary, which could work in his favor.

3. Is defensive end the deepest position on the defense in 2010, maybe on the entire team?

Buck Sanders – It is difficult to remember, but just a few short years ago North Carolina got very little pressure off the edge. Even though the Tar Heels will be minus defensive end E.J. Wilson, it is hard to imagine having four defensive ends more talented than Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples, Michael McAdoo, and Donte Paige-Moss. If push came to shove, Linwan Euwell would do well at defensive end. It is a deep group.

Greg Barnes - If Linwan Euwell's performance on Saturday was any indication, then yes. There are three known quantities in Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples and Michael McAdoo, and Donte Paige-Moss is obviously brimming with potential, but if a finally healthy Euwell can provide his quickness to the equation, line coach John Blake has a lot more options in his pocket, especially in nickel and dime packages.

Don Callahan - That's a safe statement to make. The linebacker group is pretty deep and talented and the wide receivers are deep with potential, but no other second string unit could compete for playing time on just about every ACC team like the defensive end group. Plus, the entire defensive end's two-deep will likely be drafted at some point.

4. The Tar Heels' biggest losses from 2009 were at the defensive tackle spots. Are Jordan Nix and Jared McAdoo ready to step up and provide enough snaps to rest Tydreke Powell and Marvin Austin?

Don Callahan - That remains to be seen. McAdoo red-shirted and Nix played in just four games, last year, so neither has game experience.

During the course of a game, UNC rotates its defensive line more than any other position group. Given the talent level of its starters (two high level NFL draft picks) and the drop off in experience behind them, the D-line rotation philosophy might be altered.

Greg Barnes - I'm not sure that we've seen enough to be able to accurately answer the question, but the fact of the matter is that they're going to have to play a serious number of snaps, whether they're ready or not. I'm not sure people really understand how significant Austin's return actually is – losing Cam Thomas and Al Mullins along with Austin could have been devastating in the middle. Nix and McAdoo will have to grow up quickly because they will be depended on, as well as true frosh Brandon Willis.

Buck Sanders – I don't know if UNC will rotate their defensive tackles quite as often as they did in 2009, but there is still ability in the reserves, Jordan Nix and Jared McAdoo, to provide enough rest to Tydreke Powell and Marvin Austin. When you factor in all the other breaks in college football action these days, even if they can get 10 or 12 snaps per game from those two, that should provide adequate rotation at the defensive tackle spots.

5. We're getting ahead of ourselves, but how do you feel, after spring practice, about UNC's chances of reloading the defense after they lose seven or eight defenders at the end of next season?

Don Callahan - At this stage, the front seven looks like it will be fine. To what degree it will be fine depends on how many leave early for the NFL draft – many believe Robert Quinn is gone after this season and Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell are likely to follow.

If Marvin Austin is the only loss along the defensive line, the unit could be stronger in 2011. However, even if the entire starting four leave, there is so much talent in the second string ends and the tackles should receive plenty of experience this fall.

At linebacker Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant will graduate, but Kevin Reddick will return and Zach Brown should have no problem stepping up. There is plenty of talent in the group to easily find a third starter.

The secondary has potential with Mywan Jackson and Gene Robinson, but others need to step up.

Buck Sanders – There will definitely be some drop off on defense, no matter how much UNC fans may kid themselves otherwise. You don't lose the players UNC will lose at the end of 2010 without taking a step back defensively. There are at least two, maybe three or more 2011 first round picks playing on UNC's 2010 defense.

On the other hand, UNC could drop 25 or 30 places in their defensive stats in 2011 and still field a quality defense. That is my way-too-early guess. There will still be a lot of quality players on the defense, but the 2011 defense will be missing a whole lot of defensive leadership that's been around for a long time.

Greg Barnes - The Spring Game provided plenty of indication that there is talent beyond the starting lineup on the defensive side of the ball. But one of the reasons players like Austin, Bruce Carter, Quan Sturdivant, Williams and Kendric Burney are so good is that they've started for three years now. Talent gets you in the door, but experience is what minimizes mistakes and capitalizes on opportunities.

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