Thigpen Talks LB Corps

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While the North Carolina defensive line has received positive media attention this training camp, the other component of the front seven has been scrutinized by national preseason magazines as lacking sufficient ACC-caliber talent. With a solid mix of veteran leadership and youthful athleticism, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is preparing his unit for action.

Two fourth-year players – senior Durell Mapp and redshirt junior Chase Rice – made strides in the offseason and have taken a leadership role with the linebacker unit.

"Chase and Durell really do a great job of teaching our young kids, and they take great pride in that," Thigpen said. "Tommy Richardson was that guy two years ago that taught [his teammates], and then last year it was Larry Edwards that took time and did the same thing. Every year it's got to be one or two guys that will teach the young kids, and so they've taken that role now."

True sophomore Wesley Flagg and redshirt sophomore Kennedy Tinsley combined for 14 tackles last fall, and freshmen Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant enrolled in January. Thigpen said that while those linebackers do not have much, if any, live game experience, they are putting in hard work in the weight room and in film study, as well as on the field of play.

And while Carter and Sturdivant are listed as first-year players, their early enrollment has paid dividends.

"They were able to go through the workouts with Coach Connors and they were able to go through spring ball, as well as to study film, so they got a jump," Thigpen said. "Back when I played, you couldn't bring kids in at that time, or even into summer school. When we were here, we just came in August and you had three weeks to learn…Those two kids are really talented and they both are really smart kids and they really work hard at the game."

Head coach Butch Davis praised junior Mark Paschal last week for his dedication in the strength and conditioning program, as the Charlotte, N.C. native has lost weight and picked up more speed. Thigpen said his middle linebacker has improved in other areas as well.

"Mark has taken great pride in studying the game, and coming in to watch extra film – trying to do the things right," Thigpen said.

While there is no current official depth chart, Mapp appears to be set at the weakside linebacker spot. Thigpen said Paschal and Flagg are in a battle at the middle linebacker position, and practice reports suggest that Carter and Rice are dueling for the starter tag at strongside linebacker.

Davis has put a premium on speed across the board, but Thigpen said that it will take more than athleticism to get on the field this season.

"There's an old saying – you can't tell the difference between a confused player and a scared player," Thigpen said. "They both look the same. You can have all [of] the athleticism in the world, but if you don't know where you're going or know where you're supposed to fill or what coverage you're supposed to be in or what gap you're supposed to blitz, then it's hard to tell, because they're always hesitating. They're never running full speed because they're thinking about the play they may have just busted.

"If you get a guy that really works at it, and he's got athletic ability, then it makes it pretty easy, because if he can run and think at the same time, then it's going to show on film."

The defensive line is expected to rotate as many as 10 players this fall, but the linebacking corps will not have that luxury – at least not initially.

"We're not as deep as the defensive line is right now," Thigpen said. "Those guys are bigger, so you can't run those guys 70 or 80 plays – it's like running a horse into the ground…It's not uncommon for a linebacker to go 70 plays in a game. But yet, you want to be deep because you're always just one injury away from playing a young guy. So for us, we want everybody to be knowledgeable, we want everybody to have game experience, and I think that will come throughout the year."

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