Since then, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Ron West’s unit that has seen an infusion of both talent and bodies.
“It’s unbelievable, when you think about the bowl game,” West said. “We had [Jeff] Schoettmer tear his shoulder up in preparation. Then Travis [Hughes] tears his knee up. So we have a knee injury and two of them are out. So I have Nathan Staub starting a bowl game at one backer and we had Tre Boston at the Will because we were just thin...
“If you look at where we were then and where we are now, it’s night and day.”
Despite the loss of projected Mike starter Darius Lipford due to academics, UNC returns last season’s starters in Schoettmer (85 tkl, 4.5 TFL in ‘13) at the Mike and Hughes (76 tkl, 5.5 TFL) at the Will.
“They understand what to do, they do it faster, they have the knowledge of the scheme, and our fits are better,” West said of his starting duo. “They’re more physical because they are sure of themselves more.”
Considering that UNC will start three underclassmen in the secondary and two along the defensive line, the veteran leadership emanating from the linebacker corps is an important development.
“As linebackers we make everything go,” Schoettmer said. “So, if we’re high energy and picking everybody up, if we have high energy and making the defense tick, then everybody else is going to follow.”
Improved depth is perhaps the biggest factor to take place since the bowl game. Schoettmer highlighted the play of sophomore Joe Jackson – who is backing up Hughes at the Will after switching from ram - a player West described as “the most improved guy in my position” and UNC head coach Larry Fedora termed as the biggest surprise of training camp on Monday.
“He really worked this offseason on mastering the defense,” Schoettmer said of Jackson. “He would always be eager and come to me, ‘Schoett, help me with this call and help me with that call.’ In years past he would kind of slide by, but he kind of got hungrier when he saw that he had a chance to play.”
According to Schoettmer, the two-deep – which also includes Staub at the Mike – hasn’t been the only group of players that have impressed this preseason. Freshmen Tyrell Tomlin (Mike) and Cayson Collins (Will) have had an immediate impact in practice.
“They bring depth, first and foremost, that’s something we lacked in the past,” Schoettmer said. “Cayson is 6-2 with long arms, has a great burst and really athletic, and Ty is more of a stocky run stopper. But they’re both going to be big-time players for us, whether it is this fall or the next. We’ve got Ty working on some third-down packages right now and he looks good, so I think they’re going to help us.”
Given how much progress this group has made, it would be easy for the players to become complacent, but according to Schoettmer, that has not been the case at all.
“We have 85 scholarships and guys pushing each other every day,” Schoettmer said. “In years past, guys at the top would be there, but second and third team weren’t really trying to get to that one spot. This year in fall camp, you had threes trying to be twos, twos trying to be ones, and ones battling to keep their position. That’s the competition that Fedora preaches everyday, and guys really took it to heart.”
The veteran leadership that Schoettmer and Hughes provide cannot be overlooked.
“It’s contagious.” West said. “Once you get two seeing the ball and getting the ball and being very physical and attacking, the next thing you know you have Joe Jackson getting better, and different guys in the group getting better and more physical. It’s what I’ve noticed – we have downhill players who attack the line of scrimmage better.”
UNC’s ability to possibly be four deep at each linebacker position presents the opportunity to provide a variety of looks within associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme.
“We’ll bring a balance of pressure,” West said. “We want to do what we did in the bowl game. Mix it up and bring pressure, rush and defend.”