Reloading the Tackle Box

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As the 2009 season drew to a close, it looked as though North Carolina would only return one defensive tackle from its two-deep depth chart. But Marvin Austin's unexpected return and the emergence of several young tackles have turned a potential weakness into a strength.

Red-shirt junior Al Mullins surprised the Tar Heel fan base when he strolled onto the Kenan Stadium field for Senior Day activities on Nov. 14. Depth for the 2010 season immediately became a topic of conversation. After all, starting defensive tackle Cam Thomas was finishing up his fifth year in Chapel Hill and Austin was projected in some mock NFL drafts as a first-round selection.

Austin's backup, rising red-shirt junior Tydreke Powell, was long thought to be the only known quantity entering spring practice. Austin's return, of course, has changed everything. Add in the continued development from red-shirt junior Jordan Nix and red-shirt freshman Jared McAdoo, as well as a head-turning start by true freshman Brandon Willis, and the ingredients are in place for North Carolina's interior defensive line to keep dominating the line of scrimmage in ‘10.

As expected, Powell has moved from behind Austin to alongside of the Washington, D.C. senior, but that doesn't mean the Ahoskie, N.C. native has changed his position responsibilities.

For most defensive lines, a heavier tackle would assume the ‘nose guard' designation, meaning that he lines up directly in front of the offensive center. The other tackle, referred to as the ‘3-technique' or ‘rush' tackle, typically sets up in the ‘B' gap, between the guard and offensive tackle.

While Butch Davis utilized those parameters during his first season in Chapel Hill, those titles are no longer valid.

"Nobody plays a nose and nobody plays a three-technique," Powell said on Friday afternoon. "We always slide to the strength. One time Marvin can be playing the three-technique and I can be playing a shade, and then they come back out and if it's strong to their left, I'll go to the three-technique and Marvin will go to the nose. It doesn't matter – just wherever the strength is, we slide. We used to flip, but we don't do that anymore."

The benefits include being able to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage without significant shifts, while also making the program's defensive tackles more attractive to the NFL for their versatility.

As such, Powell and McAdoo command the right defensive tackle position, and Austin and Nix take care of the left tackle spot. Willis, a 6-foot-3, 270-pounder that enrolled in January, has picked up his assignments quickly this spring and figures to play both tackle positions in Saturday's spring game.

For Powell, the biggest adjustment this spring in moving from the left side to the right has been his hand placement.

"I've been so used to playing with my right hand down; that's my dominant hand," Powell said. "But with the scheme that Coach Blake and Coach Davis use – teaching us to play either side – this spring has really helped me. I feel pretty good about it heading into the season."

With Mullins and Thomas moving on to the NFL, Nix and McAdoo will receive plenty of playing time this fall as Davis prefers to play as many as 10 defensive linemen in each and every game.

"Being able to red-shirt last year benefitted me a lot," McAdoo said. "I was able to get in here, learn the plays, get stronger and faster and also be able to work on my technique and learn the system… Now I'm just taking it day-by-day and trying to get better. I know I've got to play, so I'm just trying to get myself ready for that to help the team in any way that I can."

McAdoo indicated that his biggest points of emphasis this spring has been in developing his technique and in staying low off the snap. Success will be found in the details for the inexperienced tackles, as Mullins praised their athleticism in November and Powell added his own compliments on Friday.

"Those two guys can run," said Powell, referring to McAdoo and Nix. "They've just got to work on their hands more in the summer, getting their hand placement down. Both of them can run, so if you can run at 300 pounds, then you can be a great player."

Saturday's spring game will provide the North Carolina fan base its first opportunity to view McAdoo, Nix and Willis, but Austin and Powell are likely to receive the bulk of attention from the ESPN broadcasting crew.

"We just want to come out and showcase what we've been working on for the past three weeks," Powell said. "Just come out and have fun and give the fans a little peek of what we're going to give them in September."

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