2019 Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers
2018 was not a banner year for the Panther defense, putting up some of the worst numbers the program has seen – allowing 37.4 points per game, 251 rushing yards per game and forcing just 10 turnovers in 12 games. Some of this was due to injuries and young players being forced into action early in their time on campus, but the linebacker corps actually stayed fairly healthy. Ed Curney and Chase Middleton manned the inside linebacker spots in Nate Fuqua’s 3-4 scheme all 12 games, finishing first and third on the team in tackles respectively – backup Trajan Stephens-McQueen was close behind in fourth.
It was a scheme somewhat designed to have linebackers eat up tackles after the defensive line engaged at the line of scrimmage, so these numbers make some sense. However, there was just something missing from the linebackers in ‘18. The group had a combined 2 sacks for the season (1 from Curney, 0.5 each from Stephens-McQueen and Victor Heyward). In the 3-4 setup, a total of 0.5 sacks from the OLB group is discouraging for the fact that at least one outside linebacker is going to be rushing the backfield on most plays.
The good news is much of this group returns for another year to improve on, but the fact is the Panther defense needs to create more disruption and they need a playmaker in the middle of the field to step up. There is a good amount of returning experience in Curney and Stephens-McQueen – as well as Blake Carroll getting his feet wet in a backup role – but they will be pushed by the new additions to the group. Zach Dixon will have a chance to earn snaps after redshirting in ‘18, while freshmen Marcus Anderson and Jordan Veneziale look like they could be early contributors this season. The eligibility status of UNC transfer Kyle Wright remains unknown to this point. Playing time will be open to the guys who can make plays happen, forcing turnovers and preventing the big plays in the run game.
On the outside, Heyward anchors a group who will need to work in tandem with the big boys up front to rack up the sacks and to improve on the 2018 numbers against the run. Jordan Strachan returns at the other OLB position, but any guys on the above list could make a contribution. There’s a decent amount of depth to lean on, so having the numbers isn’t the issue – it’s getting the impact players to step up.