CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Larry Fedora refers to himself as a man who always worries, and one of his biggest concerns entering the 2016 season is the void left behind by Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer at linebacker.
“You just lost your top two linebackers,” Fedora said after Tuesday’s practice, UNC’s fourth of spring ball. “Andre Smith and those guys are back, but you don’t have a starter right now, a guy that’s been there and gotten all the reps.”
Smith received plenty of reps and praise as a freshman in the 2015 season and Cayson Collins made some critical plays for the Tar Heels as a sophomore, but beyond those two, the linebacker position currently has more questions than answers.
The good news is that those questions don’t appear to be due to lack of talent, according to Fedora.
“I like the talent that we have there,” Fedora said. “I’m excited to see who that’s going to be, and I know (linebacker coach John Papuchis) will have some guys ready to go.”
Fedora expects the fight for the two deep to heat up in the coming weeks.
“It’ll get more intense as we get out of the installation phase of spring ball,” Fedora said. “You’ve got Cole Holcomb, Cayson Collins, you’ve got Jonathan Smith, the young guy, you’ve got J.B. Copeland, you’ve got (Hunter) Crafford, you’ve got some guys that are competing and getting after it.”
Holcomb and Collins are currently working with the ones in UNC’s nickel package, while Copeland and true freshman Jonathan Smith rotated in middle linebacker in the base 4-3.
Once the installment phase of spring football ends, it will be a level playing field for each player looking to crack that starting rotation.
“Obviously, some of them know it a little bit more than the others,” Fedora said, “but I think the competition is going to be really good as we go farther in the spring.”
New Faces Making Strides
UNC welcomed eight early enrollees in January, and it’s only taken two months for some of them to make their presence known.
“It’s pretty impressive, what they’re already able to do, watching those guys,” Fedora said. “I’m watching Jonathan Smith over there at Mike linebacker, and he already knows the calls, he already knows how to get lined up and he’s very instinctive. You’re watching Myles Wolfolk and (Myles) Dorn, and they’re already playing and getting reps.
"On the other side, you see Jordon Brown out there, he just got a bunch of reps in, and he knew what he was doing. When you’re doing it at our tempo, that’s difficult, so those guys have put in the time and the effort, and it’s paying off for them.”
Smith is a linebacker out of Laurinburg, N.C., while Wolfolk (Upper Marlboro, Md.) and Dorn (Charlotte, N.C.) are defensive backs competing in a secondary that has playing time available. Brown, a running back out of Durham, N.C., is battling for position in a crowded offensive backfield.