Mullins in the Middle

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Before the Dwight Jones saga, there was the Aleric Mullins situation. But the junior defensive tackle has emerged from the academic controversy surrounding his initial enrollment at North Carolina to provide yet another talented piece to the Tar Heels' defensive puzzle.

The Caruthersville, Mo. native survived a NCAA roller coaster ride in the months leading up to his first season at North Carolina in '06, as he had to finish some classes at Wendell (N.C) East Wake to finalize his transcript after moving from his home state during high school. Mullins was informed that he had qualified in July of that summer, only to be told on Aug. 24th – less than 10 days before the season opener against Rutgers – that he had not actually met the necessary requirements.

Mullins terms the incident as "one big disaster." Fortunately, the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder received a waiver from the NCAA Initial Eligibility Waiver Committee that allowed him to practice with the team during the 2006, although he was not eligible to play.

"That whole process – it hurts," Mullins said following Tuesday afternoon's practice. "You come out and look forward to competing and helping your team, but I also took it as a way to get into the weight room and get stronger, and to learn from the veterans about what it takes to play at this level. So I took it as more of an advantage than a disadvantage."

Mullins is considered a junior eligibility-wise, but he can earn an additional year back by meeting academic performance benchmarks. Currently, everything is in place for that extra year to occur.

"I'm on track to get that year back," said Mullins, who is recovering from a right hamstring injury. "So I'm just going to keep working hard in the classroom, and I shouldn't have a problem with getting that year back."

His focus now is helping to replace the monumental losses of Kentwan Balmer and Hilee Taylor to the NFL on the defensive line, but for what seems like the first time in a decade, Mullins actually has some help in the trenches.

"I've been here going on three years, and this is the [fullest] that I've seen our meeting room," said Mullins, who started five games last fall and posted 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. "We've actually had to add more chairs to our room. I think we're 16 or 17 deep now. We're deep and we're talented, but we've still got to grow as a unit, because we got to put that to use."

Defensive line coach John Blake has his position group working toward big things this fall, especially at the defensive tackle spot. Mullins describes his relationship with his counterparts in the middle as family-like, indicating that they feed off one another and work together to disguise each other's weaknesses.

"Things that we talk about every day at practice are to go out, be fundamentally sound and hustle and run to the ball," said Mullins, who is currently working with the second team. "We want to be able to go sideline to sideline all day long."

And even though the entire defense is working under new coordinator Everett Withers, Mullins insists the differences from his predecessor are minimal.

"We're still in the same defensive playbook," Mullins said. "We're still doing the same things we were doing with [former defensive coordinator Chuck] Pagano, but it's just more simplified – [they] just let us play ball, that's it. All we want to be able to do is go out there and line out, and be able to go sideline to sideline."

Head coach Butch Davis stated during spring ball, and then again on Saturday following the team's first scrimmage, that the defense has been stripped bare in its schemes, meaning that blitzes, stunts and other strategic moves have been removed from the arsenal case during the preseason. Mullins believes that decision has proven beneficial for his unit.

"Oh yeah, especially as a defensive front," Mullins said. "It allows us just to line up and play ball. Just go (all) out, instead of having to blitz and do all that. So it's more of an advantage for us as a D-line just to get off the ball and attack."

One of the keys to building and maintaining a strong team chemistry is having an attainable, common goal, and Mullins – and his teammates – definitely believe they have that.

"All of our focus is on the ACC Championship," Mullins said. "Every day – no matter what we do – if we're together as a team, that's all we're talking about. When we break it down, we say, ‘ACC Championship,' because that's our goal. Our main focus right now is getting to Tampa."

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