Withers Talks Football

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina interim head coach Everett Withers spent his entire Monday morning media availability at Kenan Stadium talking about the sport he coaches instead of the off-the-field distractions that have secured headlines in recent weeks.

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** The Tar Heels held their first scrimmage in front of a large contingent of former players on Saturday afternoon, despite rain showers dampening the occasion. But the coaching staff used the wet weather to their advantage.

"It gave us a chance to work on some things that sometimes you have to manufacture, and we didn't have to do it," said Withers, who added that the practice was more of a personnel evaluation than a scrimmage.

UNC only put one ball on the ground during the scripted session, while the special teams units gained valuable experience in kicking and returning in the elements.

** After spending his first three media appearances talking about the past and his new role as interim head coach, Withers solely talked football on Monday and provided some rapid fire answers on a variety of players and positions.

  • Donte Paige-Moss returned to practice on Friday after missing three consecutive practices due to a medical issue.

    "Donte had a couple of good practices this past week," Withers said. "He did some good things in the scrimmage. Donte is just a guy that we've got to keep going. He's a talent and we need him on our football team."

  • Three-star safety Brandon Ellerbe finally received word from the NCAA Clearinghouse that he was cleared to play college football last Wednesday, and took the practice field for the first time as a Tar Heel on Friday. His talent was on display on Monday morning as he cut on a Braden Hanson pass to Reggie Wilkins near the goal line to break up the pass play in a team drill.

    "He's growing," Withers said. "He's got a long way to go. Any time you're not here in the summer with the rest of your teammates, it's tough on you when you come back for two-a-days. But he'll catch up fast."

  • With plenty of inexperience at linebacker outside of junior Kevin Reddick and senior Zach Brown, that position group was labeled a concern heading into the season by former head coach Butch Davis.

    "Those guys are all learning," Withers said. "Playing that position in college football and playing it with the type of offense that we have, shifting and motioning, they'll be prepared for game day because they will have seen it all. We just have to keep coaching them and they keep learning. The more they see, the better they'll be."

    The player currently starting alongside Reddick and Brown is senior Ebele Okakpu. Withers said there was "no question" that Okakpu has seized his opportunity this preseason.

    "This is his last go around, so he's like, ‘I've got to make the best of it,'" Withers said. "He's a talent. He's been a talent from day one. It's just a matter of putting it all together and I think he's starting to see that he needs to do that to play on the field."

    Sophomore Darius Lipford held that third starting spot coming out of spring practice, and while he has a solid grasp of the offense, live game experience is a needed addition to his resume.

    Lipford is currently working with the second team alongside rookie strongside linebacker Travis Hughes and JuCo transfer middle linebacker Fabby Desir.

    "He's doing good," Withers said of Desir. "He's struggling a little bit with calls and seeing the things that he needs to see, but that's to be expected. We expect guys to come in and struggle. But what it will do is that he'll be better this afternoon, he'll be better tomorrow and he'll be better next week and that's all we need."

  • Withers told reporters that while veteran Nelson Hurst is his top option at tight end, there are several talented players at that position group.

    "You talk about Sean Fitzpatrick, you talk about Christian Wilson [and] Eric Ebron just keeps showing up," Withers said. "What we've got to do is get those guys a role and give them something that they can do and do fast and they'll help our football team."

  • Former linebacker Dion Guy's transition to defensive end has gone "great", according to Withers. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Washington, D.C. native split time with the second and third teams during the open media portion of practice.

    "I watched Dion a lot today in practice – I wanted to make sure I got a chance to evaluate him myself and I think it's a good fit for him," Withers said.

** Former Tar Heel All-ACC linebacker and NFL talent David Thornton has officially been added to the UNC coaching staff in player development.

"Here's a guy that's been around this program," Withers said. "He played here, came here as a walk-on, earned a scholarship, struggled academically early, got his academic situation in hand, was drafted and played in the NFL. So he's done what all of these guys are trying to do. We're going to use him in ways with player development with being a mentor to some of these guys that have that same path working for them. We'll use David in a lot of different ways."

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