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2016 Sun Bowl: Scouting North Carolina’s linebackers

UNC brings a young group of LBs into the Sun Bowl against Stanford.

Pittsburgh v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Believe it or not, North Carolina Tar Heels sophomore linebacker Cole Holcomb left New Smyrna Beach (Fla.) HS without receiving a single FBS scholarship offer. Fast forwarding to today, Holcomb, a former walk-on, now teams with fellow second-year stud Andre Smith to create one half of the devastating duo who is leading a depleted but youthful North Carolina linebacking corps.

The Tar Heels don't have a single senior starter in the middle of their 4-3 base scheme, which makes the middle 3-6 yards of first-and-ten an oft-targeted area. J.B. Copeland, a junior college transfer this season, might've been the closest thing UNC had to a veteran presence. Unfortunately, Copeland made it into the field in only five games before calling it a career due to a high frequency of concussions.

With the linebacker group lacking a clear-cut leader, Smith and Holcomb seemed to have taken it upon themselves to step into that role as a team.

In fact, they double as the most experienced as well as the most productive defensive starters. Both have amassed over 100 tackles this season (Smith leads the team with 110 while Holcomb follows closely behind with 105).

Youth aside, the Heels’ largest problem is depth. Junior Allen Artis is still dealing with the sexual assault allegations that got him suspended before the season even began. Freshman Johnathan Smith underwent season-ending surgery on his right foot. Redshirt freshman Johnathon Scott is, well, redshirting. With the aforementioned retirement of Copeland, that leaves UNC just six available ’backers for the 83rd Annual Hyundai Sun Bowl on Friday.

Expect Stanford tight ends Dalton Schultz and Greg Taboada to find a multitude of creases right behind the UNC defensive line. Also anticipate at least 130 yards and two touchdowns from North Carolina native Bryce Love, who will sub in for Christian McCaffrey as he starts his prep for April’s NFL Draft.

If the Heels want to leave El Paso happy, they’ll need Holcomb, Smith and the rest of the linebackers to be on their game in containing Love and the Stanford running game, as well as filling pass coverage zones correctly with consistency.

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