The departed quartet of Kareem Martin, Tim Jackson, Tre Boston and Jabari Price combined for 137 starts during their careers. That statistic highlights their vast experience as well as UNC's need to rely on young players during the close of the Butch Davis era amidst NCAA violations.
Add in an interim head coach followed by a complete defensive overhaul with the arrival of head coach Larry Fedora and associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning in December 2011 and you have the makings for a thin roster with noticeable gaps of both talent and bodies.
For example, Boston moved to linebacker for the Belk Bowl in December – after tight end Jack Tabb had already spent time during the season moonlighting at LB - due to a dearth of healthy bodies.
While most eyes have been centered on the quarterback competition between Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky or the problem area that is the offensive line, it was hard not to notice the significant amount of substitutions occurring on the defensive side of the ball in both Charlotte and Greensboro.
The aforementioned departures are a blow to a defense that closed 2013 strong, although those losses are already being addressed by multiple bodies. Three players – Junior Gnonkonde, Jessie Rogers and Dajaun Drennon – are battling for Martin's starting defensive end spot, while Shawn Underwood, Justin Thomason and Nazair Jones are lined up as Jackson's replacements.
Boston's move to linebacker in the bowl game forced cornerback Tim Scott to move to free safety, and that's where the senior has remained, due to talented sophomores Brian Walker and Des Lawrence being ready to replace Scott and Price at cornerback.
True freshman cornerback M.J. Stewart has joined veteran reserves Kameron Jackson, Alex Dixon, Jeff Battle, T.J. Jiles and Sam Smiley to form a solid foundation alongside the starters, which also include ram Malik Simmons and strong safety Dominique Green.
The secondary has made the most significant strides this offseason, according to middle linebacker Darius Lipford.
"I feel like their confidence is a lot higher than it has been in some years," Lipford told reporters following Friday's scrimmage at Grimsley High School. "We've got a lot of younger guys, some freshmen in the system, excited to be out there and they're just being molded into great players. B-Walk and Des, those guys are doing really well, our safeties are coming along and I'm just excited to see what they can do."
With three healthy bodies at bandit, Lipford, former strongside linebacker, has dropped back to assume middle linebacker duties with the first string beside Travis Hughes while last year's starter – and UNC's returning leading tackler – Jeff Schoettmer recovers from offseason surgery.
For the first time in recent memory, UNC's defense is close to being able to fill out a complete three-deep with its roster, and that's not even including the freshmen who will arrive for summer school in a few months.
"Depth-wise, we have about twice as many as we did last year," Lipford said. "We had a lot of injuries up front. It's kind of flip-flopped from the offensive line's perspective. Now they have a lot of guys banged up… Defensively, we lost some key players, but we made up for it in numbers of high-quality players. The more confidence we can get them, the more mental reps we can get them in practice, the more I feel like we can be really good."
With so many young players working in the two-deep – four underclassmen are running with the ones – improvement requires work both in pads and in the meeting room.
When asked about the key for the underclassmen to elevate their play this offseason, Lawrence replied: "Study a lot of film."
"We can't just come out here on days that we practice and expect to get it," he continued. "We do a lot of stuff on and off the field, so there are a lot of things like watching film, talking about certain things that we saw in practice. We can just expect to be good or great when we get on the field."
Fedora gave the edge in both scrimmages to his defense, which matched up with the untrained eye due to that group's aggressive play and chippy attitude. More bodies along with another year in Koenning's system has resulted in increased production during spring ball.
"We've added a couple more wrinkles, but I just feel like everybody's really getting adjusted to the defense, switching from that 4-3 that we had years ago," Lipford said. "I feel like guys are starting to get more confident with the 4-2-5. The wrinkles that we've added have confused the offense and helped us, so as long as we can keep mastering that and keep getting better, I feel like it will be really good for us."
UNC's spring game will conclude spring practice at 3pm on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.