Kaufman, Part II: In Search of SAM

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Linebacker coach Art Kaufman and the defensive brain trust at UNC will have some decisions to make this spring.

Replacing Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant won't be easy, but Kaufman is confident about the players he has at his disposal.

Kevin Reddick, who has started 20 games for the Tar Heels, returns at middle linebacker, which Kaufman says is his natural position.

"Kevin is going to kind of become the bell cow - he's got more starts under his belt," Kaufman said.

The rising junior is ready to assume that leadership role now, according to Kaufman.

"He's finally kind of turned loose from where he was, but (leadership) is natural to the position and it's really natural for him too, for his personality – (that) makes a big difference," Kaufman said.

All things considered, the MIKE (middle) linebacker is the guy you'd prefer calling the shots.

"That's what you want that middle linebacker to be and he has been a little bit, but he hasn't been able to be because there's so many older guys around," he said.

The North Carolina philosophy at linebacker is, generally speaking, to put your best three linebackers on the field, then fit each one to their best position.

"We actually started (Reddick) at WILL (weakside)," Kaufman said. "We played him at SAM (stongside) and we played him at WILL. For me, I've got to play them a little bit to figure out where the best place is for them, and let them play them all. It doesn't take long to figure it out.

"Once we got going with (Reddick) a little bit, it was pretty apparent that MIKE was going to be his position. After a couple weeks' time, you could see that that's where he needed to be, and that was the best fit for all the other guys too."

In some ways, Kaufman actually has a second starter returning in senior Zach Brown. Brown actually now has 11 career starts, including 5 in 2010. Though Brown has incredible physical ability – he was on UNC's track team last winter as a sprinter – it has taken a while for him to catch up to the other necessities of playing linebacker.

"Football IQ or instincts, whatever word you want to use (is what he needed to develop)," Kaufman said. "Probably the real word to use is the lack of linebacker inexperience maybe as much as anything – he hadn't played it before. He's made more of a jump in the last year than he did in the first year I was here. He didn't understand what he didn't know the first year, and he was a starter. Once he wasn't a starter, that's when he started learning."

What sort of a jump did Brown make last year?

"He finally had a grasp of the position," Kaufman said. "There's athletic ability, but it's like having a race car and going somewhere and you don't know where you're going. You've got to be efficient. Athletic ability doesn't mean efficiency; that doesn't always correlate.

"What Zach has become (is) a more intelligent player within the scheme, understanding his role. He's got ability and now he is understanding, through football intelligence, what the opponent is going to do. He's gotten better."

In conjunction with Brown's increased understanding of the linebacker position and North Carolina's policy of putting the three best linebackers on the field, he might move to the strongside position, depending on who emerges as the "best" third linebacker, something Kaufman will begin looking at hard this spring. He already has a couple of candidates in mind.

"It could be Darius Lipford, you know, we've got a number of guys and if one guy surfaced then somebody could move around," he said. "What we would like to have is Zach at WILL; Kevin at MIKE and then find a SAM. But if Zach had to flip over (from WILL to SAM), that's what we would do. But you've got Darius Lipford, and Curtis Campbell's in the rotation."

That might come as a slight surprise to some UNC fans, but the UNC staff began looking at Campbell at linebacker in earnest during the bowl practices. He came to UNC as a safety, but is now up in the 6-1, 225-pound range. Kaufman likes what he sees.

"I've seen him run around enough to know that he can cover the ground - he's athletic," Kaufman said. "When we get him in spring ball, I'll find out if he's physical or not; that's where I'll find out. He kind of knows what to do; he's got to figure out how to do it, but he's been here two years; he'll learn faster than a guy who's just coming in."

It is not as though Kaufman is adverse to playing a freshman, however, and he likes what he sees in the recruiting class the Tar Heels brought in at that position -- Travis Hughes, Norkeithus Otis, and JUCO transfer Fabby Desir.

"Kevin Reddick didn't even go through spring, really, that first year," Kaufman said. "During the summer he worked his butt off. And, during the first half of the season, every day he was in here – ‘What do I do, what do I do?' That's why he made the jump as a freshman. And if those guys are willing to be committed like he was, there are definitely opportunities for those guys coming in," Kaufman said.

It is clear that, depth issues aside, the third linebacker spot is one to watch this spring.

"Somebody is going to play at SAM," Kaufman said. "I don't know who it's going to be, but somebody's got a great opportunity to step up. And, that's what I'm looking forward to."

(Check back tomorrow for Part III of this series)

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