There's a considerable mountain to climb for UNC, especially at linebacker – the most pre-snap diagnostic defensive position group.
The Tar Heel coaching staff declined to publish a spring depth chart this season. There is a tentative rotation on an imaginary board, but fall positions – the only ones that truly count – are still up for grabs.
If forced to produce a starting lineup today, it might include SAM Durell Mapp, (6-2, 225, Sr.), MIKE Mark Paschal (6-0, 225, Jr.) and WILL Chase Rice (6-3, 215, Jr.). Also in the running are Martel Thatch (6-2, 215, Sr.), Wesley Flagg (6-0, 215, So.) and Bruce Carter (6-3, 210, Fr.); while newly transformed quarterback/fullback Joey Bozich (6-2, 250, Jr.) and Quan Sturdivant (6-2, 225, Fr.) are also trying to make the grade for essential usage in Butch Davis' first season.
Spring injury casualty Kennedy Tinsley (6-0, 215, So.) and incoming newcomers Linwan Euwell (6-2, 210, Fr.) and Albert Craddock (6-2, 200, Fr.) will round out the personnel listing in time for the Sept. 1 home opener versus James Madison.
For the Tar Heels to return to the level of defensive play fans enjoyed throughout the better part of the ‘90s and which spread still-flourishing talent throughout the NFL, the overall mindset has to be of a strike mentality instead of damage control.
There's only one way to go but up for a defense that yielded an average of 368 yards per game in 2006.
The consensus strategy – at least that taught by the Carolina assistants – is the linebacker gets his read off the offensive linemen. Former coach John Bunting referred to these as "fits;" the current terminology around Navy field these days is "keys."
"The line is going to tell you which way you're going to go," Flagg said. "There are a couple of plays where you can't tell and you have to go on instincts. But other than that, you just have to read your keys, know your position and know where you have to be."
Added Rice, "That's all in watching film. You've got to see the angles. If you see a an ‘O'-Lineman go flat, you know it's a play action. As soon as you see you ‘O'-Line coming off towards you – that's your key – you've got to go. If they're coming off right now, that's a run play. If they're coming out flat, that's a pass play.
"It's all in watching film and preparing and knowing what they're doing."
Still, even with a deft plan of attack and the ultimate in execution, the Tar Heels can only assail their collective resolve with speed.
"Right now, we've got a lot of speed – that's what I've seen," Rice testified, but there's still a long ways to go before results will be seen in Carolina's ability to stop run and pass.
"We've got some smart guys in this group," Rice said. "We just need to get more aggressive. That's the only thing we're lacking in this group. And that comes with knowing and understanding our defense.
"As soon as we do that, we're going to be a complete linebacking group."
Leadership is also important, and it appears Mapp has taken over that responsibility for departed Larry Edwards, as well as Victor Worsley. Mapp's teammates are following his example this spring, while it remains to be seen if he can also take on a vocal role.
Mapp led the Tar Heels with 87 tackles last season, including four for losses.
"We've achieved a lot of things," Mapp said. "We are getting better. We've got a lot of plays in, and we're getting all the mental stuff down."
Flagg may be the wild card, as he's seen his stock rise the last few days in practice. Last week he was running primarily with the two-base defense and the three-nickel. However, on Wednesday, coaches inserted him in with the ones.
"They have kind of a starting lineup right now, but they're kind of moving some people to see who fits in well with certain people," Flagg said. "We're out here competing for a position, but we're also helping out each other."
Thigpen said, "We don't have older guys. We've got two seniors in Thatch and Mapp, so you have guys that are still getting used to lingo, verbiage and new techniques.
"We've got to get that leadership from guys like Thatch and Mapp."