Linebackers Adapting

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Despite learning a new defensive scheme, North Carolina’s rebuilt linebacking corps has shown signs of progress this spring.

UNC fielded the worst defense in the ACC in 2014. Under former associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning, the Tar Heels allowed 39 points, 497.8 total yards, 240.5 rushing yards and 257.4 passing yards per game, all of which ranked dead last in the conference.

In the offseason Koenning and his complex 4-2-5 scheme were replaced by former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. As Carolina’s new defensive coordinator, Chizik, along with new assistants John Papuchis (linebackers), Tray Scott (defensive line) and Charlton Warren (defensive backs) sought to implement a more traditional 4-3 look.

Within this new scheme, the one position that would likely see the most revision is linebacker. For some, the change in scheme would require learning new positions. For others, it would mean learning a multitude of signals and terminology.

Yet, as important as it was to change the strategy, it was even more important for this coaching staff to change the mindset of a defense that struggled so mightily in 2014.

“They’ve done a good job of teaching us the game,” senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “When we first started they taught everything from scratch. They acted like we didn’t know a lick of football and it was good for us.”

Despite all of the change that has gone on, Schoettmer has been the one returning starter that this staff has been able to count on.

“You’ve got Schoettmer there anchoring the whole thing, who has gotten a lot of reps,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “It doesn’t matter what scheme you’re in, he’s been out there in the battles. He feels very comfortable and he’s already picked it up. He’s been the quarterback of the defense and I think he’s doing a great job.”

One of the players that had to learn a relatively new position was Shakeel Rashad. In Koenning’s 4-2-5, Rashad played the bandit position, which required him to have his hand on the ground (more in the vein of a defensive end).

Now, the rising senior will be tasked with playing strongside linebacker in Chizik’s 4-3. According to his coaches, he has been more than up to the challenge from a physical and mental standpoint.

“I think he’s adapted very well,” Fedora said. “He’s trimming down a bit and he won’t be as big as what he was when he was playing at that [bandit] position. His athleticism has really shown out this spring.”

For other returning players, the new scheme presents an opportunity to realize their potential, as is the case with linebacker Joe Jackson. Last fall, numerous coaches singled him out as somebody who could make a significant impact during the season. But that early success in fall camp didn’t translate to the regular season, as Jackson saw limited action on the field.

Papuchis believes Jackson is finally ready to become a steady contributor.

“He is not an error-repeater,” Papuchis said. “If you correct things with him, he is able to get them fixed the next time he is out there, which shows me that he cares about being successful. He has some maturity to him and it has allowed him to run with that first unit.”

UNC has also been able to build some quality depth with sophomores Cayson Collins and Ty Tomlin at the outside linebacker positions and junior Dan Mastromatteo and true freshman Andre Smith at middle linebacker.

So, how has this new coaching staff welded this new look unit together after just 12 spring practices? The answer is simple: constant communication.

“Communication has been huge,” Schoettmer said. “We could have the best 11 guys on the field, but if not everyone is on the same page and one guy does the wrong thing, then it is going to be an 80-yard touchdown. And we saw that earlier in the first scrimmage.”

For this group and this defense, the focus is all about putting the past behind them and looking to a better future.

“For us, we expect to be one of the best defenses in the ACC,” Schoettmer said. “I know from the outside that might not seem realistic, but we have that much confidence… We don’t care what happened last year.”

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