DL Banking on Depth

Inside Carolina
Posted Aug 10, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina is counting on its defensive line’s depth to overshadow the lack of a brand name and recent attrition.

Robert Quinn. Quinton Coples. Sylvester Williams. Kareem Martin.

Those recent Tar Heel defensive linemen will be playing on Sundays this fall. Martin (82 tkl, 21.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks) was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of May’s NFL Draft, becoming the seventh UNC defensive lineman to be drafted in the last five years.

The names the casual fan will hear at Kenan Stadium on Saturdays won’t roll off the tongue with such familiarity.

“To be honest, there’s not a name player,” senior defensive tackle Devonte Brown said this week.

It’s not a topic that has managed to avoid the spotlight.

“We’ve heard that a lot,” junior defensive tackle Justin Thomason said. “I feel like that’s the perfect motivation that we need because everybody’s going to try to be a name player on this defensive line now. Everybody’s going to step up and everybody’s going to play hard. I feel like we’ll find that Kareem Martin.”

Adding a level of difficulty to the equation are the recent dismissals of two key defensive tackles – senior Shawn Underwood and red-shirt freshman Greg Webb. That attrition has forced Thomason to shift from the three-technique to nose tackle, Jessie Rogers from defensive end to three-technique (filling the void left by two-year starter Tim Jackson) and Mikey Bart from bandit to defensive end.

The staff had also initially considered playing true freshman Robert Dinkins at defensive end, but has since moved him inside to three-technique.

Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning didn’t mince words when asked about the attrition, noting that Webb had never actually played for UNC and that Underwood had been a spot player throughout his career when he wasn’t injured. That doesn’t, however, take away from their potential or their role in solidifying the depth chart, according to Koenning.

“I was hopeful that we would have been three deep like we were coming out of the spring and we’re not completely three deep now,” Koenning said. “We are if the true freshmen come on. Dinkins, [Jeremiah] Clarke and [Tyler] Powell are getting every opportunity to put themselves in the position to be in the three deep. I think Auburn showed last year what can happen if you’ll get three-deep ready, roll them and keep them fresh.”

Koenning added that his defensive line was “barely” two-deep the past two seasons, which is what could separate this current group.

Rogers (270 pounds) and Thomason (288 pounds) have both added significant weight this offseason, while senior nose tackle Ethan Farmer is the line’s most veteran – and sizeable – tackle, provided he maintains his eligibility (see below). Brown and red-shirt freshman Nazair Jones round out the tackle positions before even having to count on the rookie class.

Defensive end and bandit both appear well stocked as sophomore Junior Gnonkonde and red-shirt freshman Dajaun Drennon anchor the former while senior Norkeithus Otis (7.5 sacks in '13) and junior Shakeel Rashad handle the latter position.

Drennon (255 pounds) and Jones (295), in particular, have impressed the coaches throughout the offseason.

“We’ve got Drennon and Nazair – I’ve been calling them the secret weapons because nobody knows about those two guys,” Koenning said. “We’ll see how they do.”

That level of depth has alleviated the concern in having to replace key pieces up front such as Martin and Jackson.

“We obviously lost two great players on the defensive line, but at the same time, we’ve got the guys that were behind them more experience,” Rashad said. “They’re older; they’re better. So we have a lot of depth. That’s all across the D-line, from end to tackle and nose to bandit.”

There is a legitimate debate, however, when it comes to quantity vs. quality. Given the large number of bodies along the defensive line, is there a player ready to surface as a newsworthy talent?

“That’s a good question,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “We’ll see. Somebody’s going to emerge. Norkeithus is going to demand some attention, so somebody’s going to emerge.”

Farmer Eligibility Remains in Doubt

The eligibility of senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer, who emerged as UNC’s most consistent interior option last season, remains in flux as the Tar Heels near the midpoint of training camp.

“It’s still a little bit up in the air but we feel positive that things are going to go his direction,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore told the Durham Herald-Sun on Thursday. “But we have a plan with or without him. We’ll know what to do either way. I’m operating on a worst-case scenario as if he wouldn’t be here, and just keep him alive so if he does end up getting ruled eligible, we’ll just fit him right in and keep going.”

Farmer is the lone tackle on the roster that has started a game (13 in 2013). Shawn Underwood had four career starts on his resume at defensive tackle prior to his dismissal from the program less than two weeks ago.


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