North Carolina teams seeing changes on defense in 2020

The state’s best units suffered key losses while the worst are on the rise

Duke’s Victor Dimukeje will help anchor a defensive line that could be the most underrated in the Atlantic Coast Conference. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The seven college football teams in North Carolina have plenty of offensive firepower. The situation on the other side of the ball, however, is in a bit more flux.

The teams that were the best on defense last season will need to replace key contributors, while the teams that seem primed for the biggest improvement have a long way to go from last year’s dismal showing. The result is a big muddle of uncertainty.

Here’s our attempt to sort out the situation, with our rankings of the FBS defenses in North Carolina.

1. NC State: The Wolfpack made wholesale changes to the unit following last season’s disappointment. Coordinator Tony Gibson switched up the scheme, and the Pack will go with a 3-3-5 attack this year.

State is led by tackle Alim McNeil, who will anchor the defensive line. Penn State transfer Daniel Joseph should also bolster the pass rush. Linebacker will likely be a strength, with leading tackler Payton Wilson back, along with Isaiah Moore and Louis Acceus, who is returning from injury.

The secondary struggled last season, but health could be the quickest road to improvement. Four cornerbacks missed at least half the season last year. That provided plenty of playing time for young defensive backs, and the team can capitalize on the depth that was created.

2. Duke: The Blue Devils also struggled on defense at times last year, particularly in turnover margin. The unit looks to be a strength of the team this year, however.

The line could be the most underrated in the ACC, with ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II both likely to be early NFL Draft picks. The secondary is also deep, led by Michael Carter and Josh Blackwell.

Linebacker will be the biggest area of concern for the Blue Devils. Already thin at the position, starter Brandon Hill has opted out of the season out of concern for COVID-19, taking away an expected starter.

3. Appalachian State: The Mountaineers had a strong defense last season but need to replace five of their top six tacklers from that side of the ball. There’s plenty of talent ready to step up, however.

App should be led by Demetrius Taylor up front, who had seven sacks and three forced fumbles last year. There’s plenty of depth surrounding him on the line, as well. In the secondary, Shaun Jolly was first-team All-Sun Belt at corner, and, again, there is depth at the other spots around him.

Linebacker will be led by D’Marco Jackson and a cast of young, solid players ready to make the most of increased playing time.

4. North Carolina: The Tar Heels jumped in the defensive ratings last season, averaging 10 fewer points per game allowed. UNC has to replace Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford up front, however along with four of their top tacklers.

The Heels will be led by linebacker Chazz Surratt, who developed into one of the league’s best tacklers in his first season at the position. He’ll team with Jeremiah Gemmel. The secondary was uneven last year, but the unit should be healthy after Trey Morrison missed the year, and Storm Duck and Myles Wolfolk went down with serious injuries.

5. Charlotte: The 49ers performed well on defense last year considering the number of key players lost to injury. Simply getting them back will help offset the losses seen on this side of the ball.

Tyriq Harris will return at defensive end along with Vanderbilt transfer Josiah Sa’o. Safety Ben DeLuca is also expected back after injury woes last year. The secondary gets a boost from the transfer portal in Antone Williams, formerly of Duke. Charlotte also found a transfer at linebacker in South Carolina’s Derek Boykins.

6. Wake Forest: The defense is always in the shadow of Dave Clawson’s explosive offense, but it showed signs of significant improvement last year. The Deacs, however, must replace top tackler Justin Strnad and both starting cornerbacks. Still, the cupboard isn’t quite bare.

Defensive end Carlos Basham Jr. is one of the ACC’s best pass rushers, and the entire line returns. Linebackers Ryan Smenda and Ja’Cquez Williams will replace Strnad’s presence at linebacker.

The Demon Deacons will go as far as its secondary can carry it. Young, untested players will take on larger roles in pass defense, which could work out or could spell disaster.

7. East Carolina: The good news is that the Pirates return seven starters. The bad news is that they come from a defense that ranked 119th in the nation last season.

ECU brought in a new defensive coordinator in Blake Harrell to try and fix that. The Pirates will lean on their linebacking corps, which features Xavier Smith and Ryan Jones, who transferred from Oklahoma.

The line is undersized, but the secondary, easily the team’s weak spot last year, has been rebuilt, thanks to the transfer portal. The Pirates will add Nigel Knott, formerly of Alabama, and Isaiah Kemp, from Duke, to a group that brings back just about everyone from last year.