North Carolina has a linebacker problem.
Starters Cedric Gray and Power Echols are two of the best players on the defense. Gray leads the team in total tackles at 55 and with two interceptions. Echols has the most solo tackles at 34 and is second on the team with 44 total tackles.
Having them on the field is a good thing, but the Tar Heels are almost at a point where they can’t give the duo a break.
UNC announced on Monday that reserve linebacker Sebastian Cheeks is out for the season with an upper body injury. Sophomore linebacker RaRa Dilworth also has an upper body injury that makes him a game-time decision for Saturday’s battle at Miami.
That leaves the Heels dangerously thin at arguably their most important position on defense.
“They’re the center of the defense, I don’t think there’s anybody that would deny that, it’s indisputable,” UNC assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “They’ve got to play a lot of plays and they know it.”
Gray has played 89% of all defensive snaps this season, including games against Appalachian State and Notre Dame where he played every down. Echols has played 84% of all defensive snaps, but his worst grade, according to Pro Football Focus, came against the Irish when he played a season-high 77 snaps.
Gray said he wants to stay on the field and managing a high number of plays is not a concern. His expectation is to play every down as only safety Cam’Ron Kelly has played more defensive snaps than Gray.
“I’ve already got the iron man mentality so it really is nothing to me,” Gray said. “I can go back to Little League, high school — I didn’t come off the field. So playing 90 plays at this level, it really ain’t that big of a deal to me.”
It’s a bit ironic that Gray had his highest grade of the season, according to PFF, in the App State game where he played 88 snaps. But he also had his lowest grade of the year against the Irish in which he played 87 snaps.
Chizik said they go into a game with an estimate of how many snaps they’d like every position to have. But it’s a lot tougher to limit the play of Gray and Echols at linebacker.
“That’s one position we don’t really have that luxury — not that we can’t — we have to be smart when we do it,” Chizik said. “It’s definitely a discussion every week that we have. The ability to do that depends on circumstances during the game. It’s probably the only position on our defense where we really struggle with number of plays for individuals.”
That includes play packages. UNC head coach Mack Brown has argued for including Echols in the dime package for pass coverage, even though that’s one of the only windows he has to come out of a game.
“One of the things you have to look at, that I fought with the coaches about some, is when you put that package in, you’re taking Power out,” Brown said. “He’s one of your best players. So there’s that balance of getting pass rushers and taking an outstanding player out.”
UNC is in this position partly due to the transfer portal. Eugene Asante started in the Orange Bowl when Chazz Surratt opted out and began last season as a starter. But when Gray replaced him in the lineup, Asante announced he would transfer and is now at Auburn.
Receiver is the other position on the team that was decimated by transfers, but young talent at that position emerged this year with Kobe Paysour filling in when Josh Downs was injured and J.J. Jones and Gavin Blackwell also playing bigger roles.
Linebacker hasn’t seen that growth from its reserves, but it may have to now. Freshman Randy “Deuce” Caldwell made his debut against Virginia Tech last week. Although coaches didn’t like the way he celebrated a sack with a Karate Kid-inspired, crane kick pose, they were pleased with how he performed.
“Duece came in and made some plays and that’s good because he’s gonna have to play now,” Brown said. “And we’ve got to get him ready to play. So we can’t say he’s a freshman. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares.”
Chizik said the Heels would continue to bring Caldwell along with “baby steps” and that they were preparing to give him a bit more freedom this week in preparing for Miami.
“Linebacker has a lot of moving parts,” Chizik said. “So you have to be smart about what you’re calling when he’s in there based on what you feel comfortable with that he can execute at a high level when everything’s happening fast.”
As for the veterans, Chizik said they have to be mindful of how much they allow them to practice live reps. He said the balance is allowing them to play enough against the scout team to understand the plays their next opponent likes to run. But from a health perspective making sure they don’t get so physically fatigued from Tuesday and Wednesday practices that they are worn out by Saturday’s game.
“How we handle them during the week,” Chizik said, “is as important as how we handle them on game day.”