football Edit

Heels Not Shying Away From Praising Loaded Defensive Front

North Carolina's defensive front is very deep and very talented, and everyone in the program knows it.
North Carolina's defensive front is very deep and very talented, and everyone in the program knows it. (Jacob Turner/THI)

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CHAPEL HILL – Sometimes, the hype train keeps chugging along because it finds comfort in the realm of justification. In the case of North Carolina’s deep and talented defensive line, the plaudits showing them make a lot of sense.

At least in theory.

The number one narrative coming from UNC’s fall camp over the last few weeks is its gifted defensive front. And they most certainly are. Consider:

Among the ten players that could be in some kind of rotation this fall, one was a 5-star in high school, and six were 4-star prospects. In addition, seven of the players were rated at No. 140 or better in their classes’ respective Rivals250 rankings. And that doesn’t include Ray Vohasek, who arrived at UNC after spending time at a junior college in Illinois, and has twice been named All-ACC honorable mention. Nor does it include Kevin Hester, who played one year of high school football, and will absolutely be in the rotation this fall.

Add that Kaimon Rucker, a 3-star from Georgia, has played above his star rating, and even Myles Murphy, a possible first-round pick in the NFL Draft next April, was a 4-star but just missed out on making the Rivals250. One more note: This doesn’t include Ohio State transfer Jacolbe Cowan, who was a 4-star prospect in the class of 2019 and No. 149 overall in his class.

On paper, this group is quite talented, and on the field they are, too. So, what have teammates and coaches said about them since fall camp started? In addition, what are they saying about themselves?

Note: We aren’t including the jacks in this report, though they are often defensive ends. To note, Chris Collins came in as a 4-star, Noah Taylor was a 3-star, Malaki Hamrick was a 4-star, and Gabe Stephens was also a 4-star prospect. If including the jacks, that makes 11 out of 15 players associated with the DL that were 4-star and 5-star prospects.

Sophomore LB Power Echols

“Those guys came a long way fundamentally. And they’re huge, you just can’t move them. They’re huge, athletic, fast, and they can’t be moved, and once they get it in their mind they’re not going to be moved, they’re not going to be moved.”

Senior Safety Gio Biggers

“There’s so much size on the d-line, it’s like I’m looking at guys like, ‘Dang, who’s going to be the starter, who’s gonna be the first guy out,’ because we’ve got so many guys that can just play. If you’re in there with the white group or the blue group, there’s so many guys that can be on the blue group or be on the white group.”

On Biggers calling Jahvaree Ritzie his favorite defensive lineman on Carolina’s roster:

“He can do the splits. Most athletic d-lineman on the team.”

Senior Safety cam Kelly

On how having such a deep and talented DL helps him in the back of the defense:

“It makes it a lot easier. The frames, Coach Chiz said, ‘the frames we’ve got is ridiculous.’ Anybody can get to the ball, from the blue-to-white group, they’re all interchangeable. If one man goes down, another man comes in just as good, just as big, or faster or not as fast, but still gets the job done, stuff the gap or gets to the quarterback, and makes the back end easier for us.”

Senior Jack Chris Collins

When asked to put into perspective what the DL looks like now as opposed with when he arrived in 2018:

“That year we had Strow, we had Malik Carney, we had Jalen Dalton, we had really good guys. But the thing about it is, we didn’t have depth. Now, we have those good guys on the first line, and once those four plays go we can roll (others) right in. And for offenses, that becomes a problem because the o-line stays in there the whole time, so they’re getting tired.

“So, imagine, we come in with Myles Murphy the three-tech, next thing you know. Jahvaree Ritzie comes right after him – there’s no drop off. And that’s when it starts to get scary, that’s when we start to cause havoc.”

Sophomore Defensive Lineman Jahvaree Ritzie

On the mentality of the defensive front:

“The mentality is learn and attack. Every single day is learn what you need to know and then go make that play and do what you’ve got to do on the field. Keep learning, keep growing, and go make those plays and keep attacking. Don’t hold back anything; that’s our mentality is don’t hold back, just go.”

On the overall quality of the group:

“All the guys, we just make one unit. No one’s separated, I’m not separated from the team or the d-line, it’s like we’re all one unit. We build on each other, we make each other grow every day. It’s one unit, so we just keep pushing each other every day.”

Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik

When asked about the difference between the line he inherited in 2015 versus the one he inherited this year:

“I hate comparing teams then and teams now, like everything has changed in a lot of ways. But the first thing, when I walked in the door, that looks different to me, is the depth in the defensive line. That’s the glaring difference to me. And, it’s not only big-framed guys that are very athletic, it’s the depth and the numbers of those guys.”

More from Chizik:

“I think they can be as good as they want to be. I think they have a lot of talent, they have big frames. I think that they’ll just keep pressing and learning not being okay with being okay. They have a chance to be real good. There’s some great leaders being developed down there. But it’s all about out-working the opponent.

“We’ve talked about pass rush, if you want to be great pass rushers, you’ve got to out-work the protector. Those are the things we’re always talking to the guys about. I think they’ve got a chance to be really, really good. They should be the focal point, the starting point of this defense. If we get them to play right, they will be. But I think they can be as good as they want to be.”

UNC Coach Mack Brown

On the difference between when he looks at the d-line now as opposed to when he looked at the d-line when he returned to UNC:

“I see all of them have a chance to play. We have to play as good as we look, or better. We walk off the bus looking really good. To do that, give us ten plays, give us 15 plays. But we’ve got nine guys there who can play, but they need to play we need to go. You got to play good if you are going to play.

“If you think about it, Keeshawn Silver has gone through injuries and a high weight gain, its really slowed him down. He’s down to 315 pounds now, he’s well, he’s healthy. He is adjusting to his big body. Kedrick Bingley-Jones has had three operations since he’s been here. He was a great prospect who hasn’t had a chance to get on the field. He’s in great shape, he was 335, and now he is 315. So when you start looking at those guys.

“Guys like Des Evans. He is 6’5 and now he is 265 and he looked really good rushing the passer today, now we are not in pads, but when you have the ability to rush the passer, you have the ability to get there. Kaimon Rucker did some good things there. I feel like right now we have enough depth there with Jahvaree Ritzie. He can play inside, or power end, or three-technique. We got some big bodies that can play nose.

“Those guys have been working on getting there the last few years. They should be good now. We should be really, really good upfront.”