– North Carolina starts football practice on Friday. Between now and then, I'm providing some thoughts on where the Tar Heels stand at every position entering preseason practice.
Now we'll look at the …
Who's gone: DT Tim Jackson (26 tackles, .5 sacks); DE Kareem Martin (78 tackles, 20 for loss, 11 sacks)
Who's back: Bandit Mikey Bart (8 tackles, 1 for loss); DT Devonte Brown (12 tackles); DE Dajuan Drennon; DT Ethan Farmer (30 tackles, 2.5 for loss); DE Junior Gnonkonde (22 tackles, 1 hurry); DT Nazair Jones; B Norkeithus Otis (50 tackles, 14 for loss, 8.5 sacks); B Shakeel Rashad (9 tackles, 1 sack); DE Jessie Rogers (5 tackles, 1 hurry); DT Justin Thomason (22 tackles, 1.5 for loss)
Newcomers: DL Jeremiah Clarke; DL Robert Dinkins; DL Tyler Powell
By class: Two seniors, three juniors, two sophomores, five freshmen
Average recruiting rank (Rivals.com): 3.15 stars
Depth chart entering practice
Rogers (6-4, 270, Jr.)
Gnonkonde (6-4, 250, Soph.) OR
Drennon (6-4, 250, Fr.^)
Farmer (6-3, 295, Sr.)
Thomason (6-4, 275, Jr.)
Brown (6-3, 295, Sr.) OR
Jones (6-5, 280, Fr.^)
Otis (6-1, 235, Sr.)
Rashad (6-2, 245, Jr.)
Bart (6-3, 255, Soph.)
What to like: The positives on the defensive front start with Otis, who has become, coach Larry Fedora says, the unquestioned leader of the defense. Otis is a “bandit,” which is the hybrid defensive end and linebacker position, but he spent plenty of time close to the line of scrimmage last season, and he should again this season. With the loss of Martin, Otis is by far UNC's most experienced and proven pass rusher. Outside of Otis, there's a good amount of youth up front, which is good and bad. The good, of course, is that youth comes with an upside. The bad is that it also comes with some growing pains.
What to question: The recent departures of Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb leave UNC thin at defensive tackle. Both players, it seems, are off the team because of academic reasons. Underwood would have entered the preseason competing for a starting position. Another concern is the relative lack of proven talent that is returning. This is the first UNC defensive line in a while without a sure-thing high-round NFL draft pick. That's not to say there aren't good players here. There are, but there are more unknowns this season. Outside of Otis, just two other returning linemen had more than 20 tackles a season ago.
Preseason storylines: How UNC adjusts at defensive tackle, with the loss of Underwood and Webb, just became a big storyline. Farmer is the lone player on the depth chart at one of the defensive tackle positions. Fedora has a lot of confidence in Otis, and he can be moved around, which provides some flexibility. Outside of Otis, though, UNC lacks a proven pass-rusher, and finding someone to complement Otis will be a significant challenge for this group in the preseason.