UNC optimistic on defensive front

There’s a lot to like about this year’s North Carolina roster, Larry Fedora admits. There are far more options now than there had been in his first two years in Chapel Hill, and when pressed for positions of strength at last week’s ACC Kickoff, the UNC coach reeled off a long list that included the tailbacks, the secondary, the receivers and even quarterback, where the Tar Heels are embroiled in a full-fledged competition for the starting job.

But for a team with eyes on a division title, there was one area that was noticeably absent from Fedora’s accounting of talent: the line of scrimmage.

On this point, Fedora is of two minds. On the offensive side of the ball, he readily admits that line is his biggest concern. Experience is limited, injuries were rampant, and question marks exist in key areas. The progress the O-line makes in camp, Fedora said, will have a massive impact on the Tar Heels’ season.

But what about the other side of the ball? The losses on the defensive front were massive, too. Defensive end Kareem Martin (21.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks) is gone. Pass rusher Darius Lipford (6 TFL, 2.5 sacks) followed. Among the returning defenders, only Norkeithus Otis had as many as two sacks last season.

And while the offensive line endured its share of struggles in 2013, the defensive line might have been North Carolina’s biggest weakness.

The Heels finished 2013 last in the ACC in rushing defense, surrendering 182.4 yards per game on the ground. UNC’s defense was 10th in the league in yards per carry, 11th in tackles for loss, and it allowed more than 200 yards per game on the ground in its six losses.

The defensive front was an area of concern in 2013 that lost its biggest star, and yet Fedora still thinks there’s cause for optimism.

“Across the entire front, we probably don’t have that name guy that everybody’s talking about, but I think that’s great motivation for those kids,” Fedora said. “I would say we have some numbers right now, some guys that can play, quite a few guys we feel comfortable with in the rotation.”

That list starts with Otis, who returns at UNC’s bandit position as the team’s most fearsome pass rusher. Behind Otis, Fedora believes Shakeel Rashad is ready to blossom into a productive performer. On the line, a trio of seniors — Ethan Farmer, Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown -- bring veteran stability, while redshirt freshmen Dajaun Drennon, Nazair Jones and Greg Webb are poised to make an immediate impact.

In other words, the sheer quantity of options is enough to offer hope for improvement.

“We have a lot of guys ready to step up,” Otis said. “We have a lot of guys getting bigger, getting better.”

Otis said he’s been pleased with the work his teammates have put in over the offseason, and he envisions a group far more prepared for the rigors of the season than it was a year ago.

If that’s the case, it could mean avoiding another catastrophic opening act for the Heels’ defense, which actually improved dramatically as the season progressed in 2013.

Last September was a nightmare. UNC allowed a whopping 234 yards per game on the ground in the season’s opening month, allowing nine rushing touchdowns in four games. But in the season’s final nine games, that average dipped to a more respectable 159 yards per game rushing, and the opposition found the end zone on the ground just 10 more times.

That’s progress, Otis believes, and even with some new faces in key roles, it’s a trend he believes the unit is ready to build from.

“I’ve seen a major difference,” Otis said. “I’ve seen the guys working harder, watching film, teaching the younger guys, trying to get better each and every day.”