August 10, 2014

Needed: A Few Good Men

CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina's football team is in the midst of fall training camp, but when it comes to the defensive line, head coach Larry Fedora might as well adopt an old Marine Corps slogan, as he's simply looking for a few good men.

Some of the Tar Heels he may count on haven't technically been men for very long, either. Coaches often refer to their players as kids, but in the form of Robert Dinkins, Tyler Powell and the rest of the freshmen quintet vying for spots in UNC's defensive line rotation, they aren't far removed from being legally regarded as minors.

But if Carolina is to reach its goals this season, a few of them must man up, and they need to quickly. Liberty visits Chapel Hill in 20 days, a week later a stiffer test in San Diego State comes to town, and then a five-game stretch that will define the season commences. Essentially, Fedora and his staff have 34 days to turn some of these boys into men, or else.

"They're learning on the run as we go," Fedora said a couple of days ago, clearly avoiding the negative.

But, as the not-so-old saying goes, it is what it is.

With senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer's status for the season still uncertain, as of now, none of the 10 Heels battling to sort out the rotation have ever started a game up front in college. Only sophomore Mikey Bart has started a game, and that was twice last fall at bandit. Now he's a defensive end.

In fact, the five players with experience that are in the mix combined for just 67 tackles a year ago. Here's a quick breakdown:

*Justin Thomason, DT, 6'4, 275, Jr. - Played in all 13 games last season registering 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

*Junior Gnonkonde, DE, 6'4, 250, Soph. - Played in 13 games with 22 tackles and broke up two passes.

*Devonte Brown, 6'3, 295, DT, Sr. - Played in 11 games registering 12 tackles.

*Jessie Rogers, DE/DT, 6'4, 270, Jr. - Played in 12 games being in on five tackles.

*Mickey Bart, DE, 6'3, 250, Soph. - Bart saw action in eight games starting two and finishing with eight tackles.

Having Farmer available would be a huge boon to the Tar Heels, but they may not learn his fate for a couple of more weeks. He started every game inside last season racking up 30 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.

Rogers' versatility and willingness to play where he best helps the team, however, has been one of the more promising developments of fall camp so far. An end when spring practice concluded in April, Rogers has been getting plenty of repetitions at tackle over the last 10 days.

"It makes it nice to if we have to we can move Jessie back inside, which we've done and he's getting reps back inside," Fedora said. "It's good to have a guy that can play both positions, a guy that is smart enough, a guy that is dependable enough to do that, and he's doing a great job."

The dearth of experience inside can largely be attributed to two things: Kareem Martin left for the NFL and Tim Jackson exhausted his eligibility; and Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb failed out of school last month. Underwood was expected to start at tackle and Webb, who redshirted in his first year in 2013, was a four-star recruit with a significant upside.

Hence, Fedora's need for a few good men.

While the coaches may be stressing over this obvious concern, the players are taking it more in stride. Thomason compared losing Underwood and Webb to couple of guys lost due to injuries, which happens to every team every season. He also happens to have a more pie-in-the-sky outlook.

"I'm not concerned because we have some talented freshmen," Thomason said. "And as far as me, Jessie Rogers, Junior (Gnonkonde), we've already played."

Junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer acknowledged none of the players jockeying for spots on the depth chart up front are Kareem Martin-like, at least as of now, but he's confident they and the program can handle yet another speed bump.

"It's tough, it really is," Schoettmer said. "But one thing we've had here in the past couple of years at UNC is we've had to face adversity. Things happened; we had to bounce back from it. Whether that is plugging in another guy that just got here or moving a D end to a tackle, we've made some moves to compensate for that loss. It falls onto guys stepping up."

Aside from the aforementioned five so-called veterans, probably two players from the much greener fivesome must heed Schoettmer's call. Among them, Nazair Jones (295 pounds) and Dajuan Drennan (255), a tackle and end, respectively, drew praise from Fedora following Thursday's practice. The staff considered moving Robert Dinkins outside, but kept him inside. Dinkins came to school at 235 pounds but has put on an undetermined amount of weight.

Jeremiah Clark is long at 6'5 and 275 pounds, and tackle Tyler Powell is up to 290 pounds. One or two of these young men will be counted on to supply the Tar Heels with some depth, and perhaps more.

Fedora isn't one to reveal much and he certainly employs a pretty effective poker face, so reading into his comments can be a bit tricky and often fruitless. That said, he probably couldn't have offered a more accurate and realistic view of the current situation the other day.

"We've still got a ways to go but they're getting better," he deadpanned.

Now, if a few good men would step to the front and command attention, the group's real evolution can commence.

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