Gone are veteran leaders Kentwan Balmer, Hilee Taylor and Kyndraus Guy, and the recently signed crop of top-notch talent on the defensive line will not arrive until training camp beings in August.
"We've got some big holes to fill on the defensive line," Davis said. "Losing Kydraus Guy, losing Kentwan Balmer and Hilee Taylor, there's a lot of pressure on the defensive line right now. And obviously missing [sophomore defensive end] Darrius Massenburg is a little bit of a blow to our defense because he's a young kid that needed some work. Now the rest of the guys, I think that they're working very hard."
Need an even more direct and sobering description?
"Right now, we don't have any depth at defensive end like we want," said sophomore defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who has been battling a hamstring injury. "We're just working with what we've got."
Austin (16 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks in ‘07) headlines a highly-touted group in the middle, accompanied by juniors Aleric Mullins (19 tkl, 3.5 tfl, two sacks) Cam Thomas (eight tkl, one sack), Brown (nine tackles) and red-shirt freshman Tydreke Powell.
But the defensive tackle position could be in worse shape for line coach John Blake – he could have fewer players like he does at defensive end.
While Taylor grabbed most of the media attention with his 10.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss last fall, junior E.J. Wilson may have been the most consistent end – especially in run defense – for North Carolina, posting 44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Sophomore Greg Elleby is currently working at weakside end opposite of Wilson, with sophomore Darius Powell and junior walk-on Brian White filling out the two-deep.
"In the perfect world, we would really like to have had three more defensive linemen for this spring," Davis said. "That's probably the biggest shortcoming right now defensively that would have allowed us to have a lot of scrimmage situations.
“I really would have liked to have had maybe as many as four or five good live full-speed tackling days, but we can't run the risk because one injury on the defensive line and we're not even going to be two-deep. So it's very important for us to get through this spring as healthy as possible."
Davis indicated that he would prefer to have upwards of 10 players that were capable of contributing every Saturday afternoon when the season rolls around. But until then, the Tar Heels have to make due with what they have got in the defensive trenches, and Year Two in the new regime’s system has thus been a much smoother ride.
"I think we're playing a lot faster than we did last season," Austin said. "We've got a little more speed on defense this year… Basically, we know the defense better now, so we've got a better feel for what we can do and where we should be."
Baseball managers have long suggested that great pitching is the primary determining factor in their teams’ success, with some even claiming that a stout group of live arms allows them to control 90 percent of the game in question. Davis agrees that there is a direct parallel to the defensive line’s importance in football.
"It's the hardest group to amass that kind of great talent," Davis said. "I think we had five guys players the Dallas Cowboys that made it to Pro Bowls over a course of time. And they do – they can control so much of the game… You can control the running game, you can put pressure on the quarterback and you can control the line of scrimmage. It's always been a passion of mine to recruit them, to coach them [and] to draft them. You want to have as good a defensive line as humanly possible."
But while that quality – and more importantly, quantity – may be another few years in the making, with talented athletes like Austin on the front line, North Carolina will continue to be a factor defensively until the cavalry arrives.
“I just want to go out there and play hard – play hard and fast for the defense," Austin said. "Just go out there and give my all to the guys that play beside me and the guys that play behind me, because I know they're going to give their all. That's the only way we're going to get to the national championship, and that's what we're working for."