For a while now the defensive line at North Carolina has been a showcase for some of the most promising professional prospects, a launching pad for players who became high-round NFL draft picks.
In three of the past four drafts, a UNC defensive lineman was chosen in the first round: Robert Quinn in 2011, Quinton Coples in 2012 and Sylvester Williams in 2013. Marvin Austin went in the second round in 2011. In May, Kareem Martin became another Tar Heels defensive lineman selected among the first three rounds.
For at least the past five years, UNC has approached the season with the comfort of knowing it could rely on at least one defensive lineman – oftentimes more – who was projected to be an early round pick. This year, though, that assurance is gone.
There is no Austin, the defensive tackle who along with Quinn sat out the 2010 season amid an NCAA investigation he ignited. There is no Coples, a feared pass rusher, or Williams, who anchored the middle of UNC’s line in 2012, or Martin, the defensive end who had 11.5 sacks a season ago.
Instead, there are voids, and questions. In a technical sense, the most proven player on UNC’s defensive line isn’t a lineman at all. Norkeithus Otis, a senior who had 8.5 sacks last season, plays the bandit position – a hybrid that is half defensive end, half linebacker.
Nonetheless, Otis is, by far, the Tar Heels’ most proven pass rusher. He enters the season with 9.5 sacks in three seasons, while the rest of the linemen have fewer than half of that combined.
The lack of returning production is a contrast to what UNC had a season ago, with Martin on one end and Otis on the other. That dynamic is missing approaching the Aug. 30 season-opener against Liberty. Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ third-year coach, was stumped recently when he thought about who would complement Otis and become the team’s next reliable pass rusher.
“That’s a good question,” Fedora said, because the answer is so unknown. “We’ll see. I mean, somebody’s going to emerge. Because Norkeithus is going to command some attention.”
Fedora rattled off a list of candidates, all of whom are young and mostly unproven: Junior Gnonkonde, a sophomore, and Dajuan Drennon, a redshirt freshman, and Mikey Bart, a sophomore.
Combined, those three enter the season with 30 college tackles and two quarterback hurries. Drennon has never played in a college game, and Bart played in eight games last season.
All entered the preseason as backups – Bart at bandit and Gnonkonde and Drennon at defensive end, where they had been in line behind Jessie Rogers, who has since moved to the inside of the line.
Rogers switched positions amid the loss of Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb, defensive tackles who were dismissed from the team for academic reasons. Another defensive tackle, Ethan Farmer, faces questions about his academic eligibility, though he has continued to practice.
Keith Gilmore, the defensive line coach, said last week if Farmer ends up “getting ruled eligible, we’ll just fit him right in and keep going.” Gilmore has had to be especially flexible during the preseason, amid the personnel losses, the youth and inexperience and the question surrounding Farmer, a senior who is among the line’s most experienced players.
It has been “a little bit different,” too, Gilmore said, without a proven star up front.
“That means everybody has to contribute,” he said. “… I think (it makes) for a great situation. I’m really excited about these guys, because they’ve all got talent. They’re just waiting to be named that next guy. It’s not like we’re void of talent.
“It’s just, a guy hasn’t had an opportunity to really come to the forefront.”
There is no shortage of those opportunities now, a few weeks before the first game. When UNC plays Liberty, at least two defensive linemen will start for the first time. If Farmer, who started every game last season, isn’t eligible, then the Tar Heels will have three.
That means there are chances for veterans Devonte Brown, a senior, and Justin Thomason, a junior – both of whom have had to wait their turn at defensive tackle. There will be opportunities, also, for the younger players Fedora mentioned – Bart, Drennon, Gnonkonde and Nazair Jones, another freshman who redshirted last season.
Fedora’s hope is that someone among those four players will emerge to become a consistent pass-rushing threat. With the Tar Heels not having a complement to Otis, opposing offenses will be better suited to stop him – or at least limit him.
“Teams don’t really know what to do to stop two dynamic pass rushers,” said Otis, who last season benefited from Martin, and vice versa. “But if you only have one, then it’s a little bit shaky.”
In some ways, the questions surrounding the defensive line mirror those that surround UNC’s offensive line. Both position groups lost two reliable starters. Both have positions completely open and undecided a week into preseason practice. And both lines might well decide the effectiveness of the offense and the defense as a whole.
Brown called it an “exciting” time – all the unknowns and chances up front – and he scoffed at the thought that UNC would miss the kind of proven defensive lineman that had become the norm.
There are plenty of questions, though, to go along with the kind of optimism that comes with the start of a new season.
“We’re going to show the world that we don’t particularly need those guys,” said Brown, who played in 11 games as a reserve last season. “They had their time, they shined, they did what they had to do. But now there’s a new set.”