The North Carolina defense has been looking for some linebackers to step up this spring. Inexperience and injury slowed the linebacker corps in 2002, and to be successful in 2003, the entire front seven needs to be stouter.
In an interview conducted prior to the spring game, defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable reviewed the situation at linebacker.
"We have only got one real true starter coming back at linebacker from last year, and that is Doug Justice," Huxtable said. "SAM (strongside) linebacker, we started out last year with Devllen Bullard, then went to Clarence Gaddy, and Jeff Longhany started a couple of games. So we didn't really have a starting SAM linebacker last year."
"Our WILL (weakside) linebacker was Malcolm Stewart, and Clay Roberson started a couple of games when Malcolm had some injuries. So we really only have one starter coming back at linebacker, and that is Doug (Justice)."
Near the end of spring practice, head coach John Bunting reported some progress at the linebacker position.
"I think Jeff Longhany has really gotten a better as a linebacker, having great run reads and be able to sift through blocks and tackle," Bunting said following last Saturday's scrimmage. "He made an open-field tackle today, which good for Jeff. So, I just think that the linebackers we played with last year were very inexperienced, every one of them. Of course, Malcolm (Stewart) is gone. He was an inexperienced linebacker. Doug (Justice) is a little bit smarter. Clarence (Gaddy) is little bit smarter. And Jeff (Longhany) has gotten some more opportunity to play, so he's a little smarter. So, they're all a little smarter."
Some position changes have been made among the linebackers since last season. Devllen Bullard, who played SAM linebacker last season has moved to MIKE (middle) linebacker, playing behind starter Doug Justice. Jeff Longhany who played SAM last season, has been moved to WILL linebacker, competing with Clay Roberson. Clarence Gaddy is back at the SAM linebacker position backed up by true freshman Melik Brown.
Brown may or may not stay at the linebacker spot next fall, but right now he is on the two-deep at the SAM linebacker position. "Brown is in between a linebacker and a defensive end right now, but he has a real fluidness about him as a linebacker," Bunting said. "I'm hopeful that over time that we'll get him to drop a few pounds and try to make him a little quicker and faster. But, he's more of a natural linebacker right now. He's strong and he's got a great attitude, so I think he's got a chance to get a lot better."
Though the more veteran players have progressed, Bunting has made no secret of his desire to get the four true freshman linebackers signed in the 2003 class into fall camp. "What I'm really anxious to do is to get those freshman linebackers in there, because they got a lot of speed," Bunting said.
Looking ahead to the fall, the coaching staff has determined where the four talented freshmen will start out. "I will start Larry Edwards out at the WILL linebacker position. Fred Sparkman and Kory Gedin, I will start out at MIKE linebacker, and Joe Kedra will be a SAM linebacker," Huxtable said.
"That is where I will start them on day one, but after working with them, seeing if they fit more the mold some other position, that's where I will move them, but that is where I will start them out in the fall."
In addition to the five true freshmen (including Melik Brown), another linebacker should be available this fall, red-shirt frosh Victor Worsley, of whom the coaching staff has high expectations. Worsley injured a shoulder during fall camp last season and missed all of the 2002 season. Indications are that he will be back for the start of fall camp.
"Victor is a guy who I think can play any one of the three positions," Huxtable said. "He's big, he's strong, he is explosive, and can run. I hope we get a healthy Victor Worsley back because he is a kid – at the end of fall when we worked some of the young kids at the end of the practice individually and in some group and team stuff – boy he really stood out. It is a darn shame that he hurt that shoulder, but if we can get a healthy Victor Worsley back in the fall, you'll see him play because he is a tremendous talent I think. I think he can play any one of those three positions, where we need him to play."
The linebacker position may the unit that undergoes the most radical changes from spring practice to fall camp. How far behind will the freshmen be?"The linebacker position is wide open right now," Huxtable said prior to spring practice. "There are going to be fifteen practices in the spring for those kids to compete and for me to evaluate fifteen practices. And then those freshmen will come in, and that is all those kids will have on those freshmen when they come in and there could be a freshman kid that could compete for a starting position or get into that two-deep."