Brown Back on Track

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The rumors and innuendo started as soon as Butkus Award watch list member Zach Brown started training camp with the second-team defense. But as camp drew to a close on Monday, the senior linebacker was back up to speed and entrenched as a starter.

North Carolina head coach Everett Withers alluded to a lack of consistency when asked about Brown's progression during the first week of practice.

"Obviously with the talent he has, his ceiling is high," Withers said on Aug. 15. "We've been talking a lot, whether it be offense, defense or kicking game, about little things. As you know with college athletes that are talented, it's about little things. If Zach can do the little things, then he can be a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal linebacker for us."

Withers was asked again on Monday about that lack of consistency and how Brown has responded.

"I think he's gotten a lot better," Withers said. "Zach's been playing a lot of football for us since I've been here. We expect Zach to be a good player for us and to be one of the guys on defense that we count on and to be one of those core guys."

Brown, however, points to a minor leg injury suffered during the offseason that put him behind the 8-ball.

"In the spring I had a little injury that kind of set me back and I couldn't do much over the offseason, so I had to get in shape a couple of weeks before training camp, which I did and I just had to keep pushing myself from there to get back to where I was at last," the weakside linebacker said.

Regardless of the reason, Brown insists that he's a better football player now than he was a year ago, when he was second on the team in both tackles (72) and interceptions (3, 113 return yards).

"I've improved my knowledge of the game," Brown said. "I'm more of a downhill player now. Last year, I was more sideline-to-sideline, but now I can get downhill. I've gotten a lot stronger so on the outside I can rush the passer."

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder has been a fan favorite since arriving on campus from Hargrave Military Academy a little over three years ago primarily due to his track speed. Former quarterback T.J. Yates furthered that hype with the tale of Brown stumbling out of the block in spring of 2010 and still managing to post a 4.28 40.

After a handful of his teammates questioned that time, Brown called together the coaches and other staff members to put a plethora of stopwatches on his next run. The Columbia, Md. then delivered a 4.26 40 to prove his doubters wrong.

Brown indicated that his speed helps him most in the passing game.

"If the ball is tipped, most of the time I run to the ball because you never know what can happen," Brown said. "If it's a high tip, I know I can pick it off like in the Tennessee game, so I just run to the ball a lot more…

"I can shoot backside gaps that most linebackers can't shoot because they're not fast enough. Coach says if you take it, you better make it, so at certain times I take my chances."

Brown is aware of the preseason accolades being thrown in his direction, but he understands the likeliness of winning any of those awards is diminished if his team doesn't win ball games. And while former head coach Butch Davis expressed concern in late July about the linebacker corps, Brown believes a fellow senior has done enough in training camp to calm any fears.

"Our third backer is just as good as us," Brown said. "Ebele [Okakpu] – he's going to be a surprise. Not everybody knows that yet, but they're going to have a front seven on their hands, one of the best front sevens in the nation."

The secondary has been another question mark for this defense and starting cornerback Jabari Price being sidelined for a minimum of six weeks after hand surgery has only increased the concern in the back four, but Todd Harrelson has performed well at corner since moving over from wide receiver last week.

"Todd's coming along good," Brown said. "We'll miss Jabari, but Todd's coming along. He played [defensive back] in high school, so it's not really a surprise to us. He's picking up our scheme well… He's tall. Most corners aren't 6-1 or 6-2, so he's going to be a surprise."

Despite a slow start to training camp, Brown is expecting a furious finish to close his playing career as a Tar Heel this fall.

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