LBs Move Up, Over

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Though not the preferable way to earn playing time, a potential season-ending injury to senior Larry Edwards opened up a competition this week for the starting SAM linebacker position. Junior Martel Thatch (pictured) will start, and true freshman Wesley Flagg will move over to the No. 2 spot when the Tar Heels travel to Virginia.

"I'm very excited," Thatch said. "I just want to go out there and help my team any way I can – make plays, play my assignments."

Edwards not only involuntarily relinquished his spot on the field, but he'll soon vacate his position as UNC's leading tackler with 42 stops. Thatch and Flagg have combined on just eight tackles so far this season.

"Martel has got some physical strength and some ability to cover," John Bunting said. "This is an opportunity for him to go out and mix it up with the big boys."

Sophomore Chase Rice will replace Flagg in the nickel package.

Sophomore Garrett White, who Bunting said earlier this week would vie with Thatch for the starting SAM position, was removed from this week's two-deep, Bunting said on Wednesday.

White, who has five tackles this season, appeared destined for big things playing in eight games last year primarily as a pass rush specialist.

When asked about White's status for this week, Bunting replied, "He is not in the rotation this week. We're going to give these two the opportunity this week."

After a standout career at Dudley High School, where he was one of three Division I recruits in 2003, Thatch was relegated to strictly special teams during his freshman and sophomore seasons at UNC.

A converted safety, Thatch appeared buried on the defensive depth chart at the beginning of this season as well.

"It was tough," Thatch said. "You know you want to play your position. At the same time, I gave everything I had on special teams to help my team out.

"(The move to linebacker was) a big transition," he said. "I had to put on weight. The biggest transition was learning the game of football. You have to know the schemes, the D-Line, the secondary… You really just have to be a smarter football player.

"I just stayed persistent and stayed assignment-sound. I met with the coaches off the field to show that extra effort to learn the plays," he said explaining why he felt he earned this opportunity."

Bunting said, "He's really worked hard at the game as of this year. The good thing about Martel is I see him getting better throughout the season."

On June 15, Flagg told Inside Carolina he was planning to prep at Milford Academy (N.Y.). But when everything shook out with the Tar Heels' 2006 rookie class, and Flagg was cleared academically, he then joined the team in August – midway through preseason camp.

"We had (NCAA) clearinghouse issues, and it was very frustrating," Bunting said commenting on Flagg's eligibility.

"He has a lot of natural power. He's a guy that could probably be a great MIKE backer, but we're going to put him at the SAM, because he can be physical over the tight end."

When he did arrive on campus, Flagg was ready. He had added about 15 pounds of muscle as he was preparing for a season of football at Milford. Now he's poised to play Division I football on national television.

"I'm really pumped up," Flagg said. "I haven't really told anybody yet. I am just telling everyone to watch TV."

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