Directing the Defense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's defense has been hyped as one of the best nationally heading into the 2010 season, thanks to a senior-laden starting unit with immense experience. The irony of the situation is that the youngest of the group – sophomore Kevin Reddick – runs the show at middle linebacker.

Head coach Butch Davis opened spring ball by telling the media that building depth behind the experienced first-team units was the primary objective of these 15 practice opportunities. That was entirely expected considering that 19 starters returned from last season's 8-5 campaign and that six defensive players had started for the better part of three seasons.

But Reddick is the prime exception to the rule. Shortly after joining North Carolina for the second time in January '09, the rising sophomore was diagnosed with mononucleosis and sidelined for spring practice. So despite a strong emergence last fall that allowed Quan Sturdivant to move back to weakside linebacker midway through the season, Reddick may as well be a rookie in his first spring session in Chapel Hill.

"It's not even like I'm starting," said Reddick, who registered 45 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. "I'm hungry again. It's like I'm not starting, just trying to compete and trying to make myself better and helping the guys behind me to get better."

Standing squarely in center of North Carolina's 4-3-4 defensive scheme, the New Bern, N.C. native understands that his role is that of the defensive quarterback, responsible for calling plays and making sure his elder teammates are where they are supposed to be in accordance with how the offense is lined up for each and every play.

"You're not really reading the quarterback or the running back," Reddick said. "You've just got to see the offensive linemen; they'll take you to the play every time."

That's not to say that Reddick no longer leans on the two heavyweights – Sturdivant and Bruce Carter – that flank him at linebacker.

"They still help me out now in knowing what to do," Reddick said. "They know more than me, but I'm catching up to them. It's basically the same thing as if I wasn't out there – they're looking at the calls exactly like me, but if not, they'll get it from me. They help me out a lot."

And while Carter and Sturdivant are entrenched in their positions on the strongside and weakside, respectively, Reddick has not yet achieved that aura of invincibility in the mind of his head coach.

Davis recently indicated that finding worthy candidates at linebacker was an "issue" this spring, naming Reddick in a group of players that also included Zach Brown, Ebele Okakpu and Dion Guy.

"They've got to come on," Davis said last week. "They've got to become disciplined players. They've got to become smart players. They've got to really understand how to go into the games and be able to play like our backup defensive linemen have been able to do."

Guy, a red-shirt sophomore from Washington, D.C., is currently working as Reddick's backup at middle linebacker.

"He's pretty good," Reddick said. "He's doing a good job out there. This is his first year playing middle linebacker, so I feel like he's doing a good job with that move."

Another player that has emerged this spring is Okakpu, a junior from Roswell, Ga. The red-shirt junior will likely play on the edge, but the coaching staff is open to finding other options for depth purposes in the middle and it appears that several players are stepping up their games in hopes of earning more playing time in the fall.

"Ebele is a natural linebacker; he can read the run and do it all," Brown said. "Dion is another good linebacker. Herman [Davidson's] coming along very well – he's having good practices. The one that's surprised me is still Ebele. He's having a good spring. He's come a long ways."

As Davis likes to say, competition is a good thing. Learning curves are a rite of passage for young linebackers and that's ultimately the label that resides around Reddick's neck. But he showed an ability beyond his years on the field as a freshman and his off-the-field maturity is evident in how he talks about the expectations surrounding this much-hyped defense.

"We would like to finish No. 1 [nationally], but that's not even a big priority for us," Reddick said. "We just want to go out there and win games. Get points on defense, force turnovers and just help the offense get the ball back… We just want to go out there and play hard-nosed football. Stop the run, stop the pass and just go out there and play ball and give it all we got."

Spoken like a young man who is quietly and efficiently absorbing the vast experience of the players surrounding him on defense. The interesting thing is that they will have to rely on Reddick to achieve the lofty expectations that await them in the fall.

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