{{ timeAgo('2019-09-12 10:26:34 -0500') }} football Edit

Is Linebacker Suddenly A Position Of Strength?

UNC now has four inside linebackers defensive coordinator Jay Bateman trusts, offsetting an area that was not long ago a big concern.
UNC now has four inside linebackers defensive coordinator Jay Bateman trusts, offsetting an area that was not long ago a big concern. (Jenna Miller, THI)

CHAPEL HILL – Of the many concerns Mack Brown and his staff had going into North Carolina’s season opener versus South Carolina two weeks ago was the mystery situation at linebacker.

The two most experienced linebackers on the roster weren’t available versus the Gamecocks. Dominique Ross was serving an ACC suspension for a half stemming from a fight against N.C. State last November and missed the other half serving a team suspension. Jonathan Smith was suspended for the first two games for another reason.

Aside from them, sophomore Jeremiah Gemmel was the most experienced linebacker on the roster, and he played just 10 snaps last season, and the other starter was Chazz Surratt, the most talked about quarterback-turned-linebacker in a long time along Tobacco Road or perhaps anywhere.

So yeah, the staff was probably a bit uneasy given the uncertainty going into the first game. And who could blame them?

Two weeks later, however, it appears that’s dissipated some. Surratt racked up 12 tackles versus the Gamecocks and has proven he can play at this level, and even defensive coordinator Jay Bateman recently hinted the junior could have a future at the next level.

Ross (3) had five tackles playing 39 snaps versus Miami.
Ross (3) had five tackles playing 39 snaps versus Miami. (Jenna Miller, THI)

Jeremiah Gemmel registered 14 tackles against Miami and is reminding some UNC fans of the sideline-to-sideline guys that swarmed the Kenan Stadium turf a decade ago. Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant are names that rather easily roll off Carolina tongues.

“Jeremiah, I thought played really well,” Bateman said Monday, referencing Gemmel’s performance against Miami.

Ross played 39 snaps versus the Hurricanes, the same number as Surratt, and finished the night with five tackles and three quarterback hurries. Bateman was pleased with how the rotations went, but he wouldn’t mind seeing Surratt and Ross together on the field at times.

“We wanted to get Dominque into some different situations as a pass rusher because I think he’s got a really, really good skill set on the edge…,” Bateman said. “Going forward, we would like to get them on the field more than we did. I was happy with it.”

Going forward also now includes Smith, who has played in 23 games as a Tar Heel with eight starts to his credit. Gemmel played 76 snaps in the win over Miami, but that likely won’t happen anymore because he’ll usually be paired with Smith in Bateman’s rotations. As UNC prepares to visit Wake Forest on Friday night, it has depth at inside linebacker, a thought that wasn’t much entertained just a few short weeks ago.

Having Smith back gives UNC four trusted inside linebackers this week.
Having Smith back gives UNC four trusted inside linebackers this week. (USA Today)

Adding Smith is big. The flexibility of having four inside linebackers the staff trusts has fortified an area that was a significant concern not too long ago. Smith is the unit’s exclamation mark.

“Experience, number one,” Gemmel said, when asked what Smith adds to the group. “He’s played a lot of ball here. In fall camp, he looked really good. Obviously, he wasn’t getting ready to play those first two weeks…

“He wasn’t with us in the spring, but it didn’t take him too long, it took about a week, and after a week we were already halfway through the playbook and he wasn’t making mistakes. He’ll be ready to go.”

The rotations may be scripted for a while and certainly will at times be solely situational. But much like the running back room, it will also be about production.

“Whoever’s playing hot I guess will stay (in),” Surratt said.

That wasn’t an option in Charlotte and was only partially so last weekend. Four linebackers are better than two, a reality the Tar Heels will experience Friday night.