CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Most walk-ons spend years not knowing if their chance to shine will ever come. For UNC linebacker Cole Holcomb, his chance is now.
The redshirt sophomore is currently running with the ones at Will linebacker after backing up Shakeel Rashad last season. Rashad’s shoes are big ones to fill, but Holcomb has been preparing for this moment since he decided to walk on at UNC from his hometown of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.
“I’m excited for it,” Holcomb said after practice on Tuesday. “It was a big eye-opening thing to realize that you’re finally the guy.”
Holcomb knew coming into UNC that the hill for him as a walk-on was always going to be a little steeper, although the success of previous Tar Heel walk-ons such as linebacker Jeff Schoettmer and wide receiver Mack Hollins offered reason for hope. In the end, it didn’t matter to him whether he was on scholarship or not, because Holcomb was determined to play.
“The way I got there was staying in the film room and knowing what I’ve got to do,” Holcomb said. “That’s the main thing that put me ahead of people. Knowing what I could do, and knowing the defense and then now it’s just learning the small details and perfecting it.”
That extra work didn’t go unnoticed last season, especially on special teams. That’s where the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder gained the respect of junior linebacker Cayson Collins.
“He was a walk-on when he came in, so nobody really paid him any attention, but he made a name for himself on special teams and then got the coaches’ attention when he made a couple of big plays on special teams,” Collins said. “That stuff has given him the opportunity to get on the field.”
Special teams may have served as his entry point for increased playing time, although competing and earning trust on defense is a whole new challenge.
“I feel like people respect me because I work hard and a lot of people respect that,” he said. “I like to talk and hang with the guys but they know when I’m serious and when we need to step it up. When I’m trying to keep the energy up they understand it.”
While he might still not have the loudest voice among his teammates, the walk-on success story still leads by example in the weight room and the practice field.
“He’s been one of the most consistent, hard workers that I’ve ever had the chance to be around,” Collins said. “He’s a freak in the weight room. He’s consistent when he comes out here to practice… He knows what he’s doing, he’s been in his playbook and he can go out and do it.”
All of that work has made Holcomb the man to beat at outside linebacker, according to head coach Larry Fedora.
“Cole is taking advantage of all of his opportunities,” Fedora said. “He’s a very bright kid... I think he’s going to be a good football player and he’ll help us.”