UNC football looking for ‘thunder and lightning’ as Tar Heels hope to improve pass rush
North Carolina senior Kaimon Rucker believes the Tar Heels’ pass rush now contains the thunder and lightning to jolt the team into being more effective next season.
The Heels ranked last in the ACC in 2022 with 17 sacks. Only Colorado, which totaled just nine, averaged fewer sacks per game among power conference teams. It’s such a priority that coach Mack Brown added longtime former NFL assistant coach Todd Machino as a defensive analyst specifically to help enhance their pass rush.
Rucker pointed to the addition of Amari Gainer from Florida State as a reason why they should be better. Gainer played five seasons for the Seminoles mainly at inside linebacker and transferred to Carolina for his final season because he wanted a chance to be a pass rusher.
Photos: Tar Heels holds open football practice in Kenan Stadium
Both Rucker and Gainer will spend time at the “Jack” position, which is essentially an edge rusher in Carolina’s scheme.
“It’s kind of like a thunder-and-lightning effect with us right now,” Rucker said. “He’s definitely lighting. He’s the speed, the quick guy and you bring me in for some power and things of that nature of being explosive.”
Linebacker Power Nichols definitely buys into Rucker’s power to the point of likening him to a steel-driving man from folk lore.
“My nickname for him is John Henry,” Echols said. “He’s going to get mad at me for this, but that dude is just a wrecking ball. He’ll just stop a 300-pound man with one arm.”
The Heels held an open practice Saturday in Kenan Stadium before their spring game takes place on April 15. Gainer was one of several transfers who are competing for prominent roles next season.
“He’s a great addition to the room, and I’m glad he’s here man,” Rucker said. “He’s very fast, very physical and he adds the edge to the defense that we need. He closes space well, tackles very well in open space. He’s that other guy that we need, especially at the ‘Sam’ spot in our base personnel.”
Safety Derrik Allen, a Georgia Tech transfer, got reps with the first team alongside his brother, cornerbacker Will Allen. East Tennessee State transfer Alijah Huzzie also was with the starters at cornerback. (A third transfer in the secondary, cornerback Armani Chapman, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and did not participate.)
For the pass rush to improve, assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik wants to put his cornerbacks in tighter coverages to give the linemen extra seconds to get to the quarterback. When spring drills began earlier this month he said some of the coverages last season were dictated by not having the personnel to press at the line of scrimmage.
“They all tie in together, the defensive line in the front and the rush ties in with what we can do back there,” Chizik said. “And what we can do back there dictates a lot of the things that we can do up front.”
Rucker began the transition to Jack at the end of last season after starter Noah Taylor was injured and missed the final six games. Rucker recorded a sack in the Holiday Bowl against an Oregon unit that led the nation having only allowed four others all season.
He believes now that he’s at the position full time — and having a full spring to practice after missing last year while rehabbing a knee injury — he can be more effective.
“It wasn’t ever a hesitation — I was down for it from the jump,” Rucker said. “I remember telling you all this last season, it was like wherever I’m needed, I’ll be.”