Tar Heel tight end Jack Tabb had 12 catches and a touchdown for the Tar Heels in 2012, his sophomore season. But beginning this week in training camp, he’s working out at middle linebacker. It’s not because Tabb is not a talented tight end who doesn’t understand the offense. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “I know the offense really well, pretty much front to back,” he said Monday. “So, with the lack of depth at linebacker, I took a few reps at middle linebacker today.”
Tabb said that associate head coach Vic Koenning had long been teasing him about moving over to ‘the dark side,’ but injuries and attrition in the middle of the defense made the move a necessity. “We’re just so depleted there,” Koenning said. “We went from four or five deep to two deep in a matter of a week. Jack's a guy that had done that some in high school, and we’re just going to have to ease him along. He’s certainly a willing young man.”
Carolina’s scholarship sanctions as the result of the 2011 NCAA investigation have forced the coaches to get creative, and the players to be flexible. The Tar Heels are down five scholarships per year for three years, and that adds up. Recently, Damien Washington moved from wide receiver to safety, and while Washington is eager, “it’s a little bit of a fish out of water,” Koenning said.
Tabb’s is not a full-time switch. He and his coaches are confident that his knowledge of the offensive playbook will stick even as he learns the defense. He will continue to rotate with Eric Ebron at tight end and be used on defense as needed. “Whether I practice offense right now or whether I don’t practice all the way up to the South Carolina game, I’m going to know what to do on offense, so right now I’m going to learn the defense, learn that front to back, and that way I can contribute on both sides.”
Monday was Tabb’s first day on defense, and he confessed that he felt “pretty clueless out there.” He was in “see ball, hit ball” mode. Still, the Smart, Fast, Physical mantra employed by head coach Larry Fedora is appropriate no matter the position. “I was told to play fast, and I’m going to play fast wherever I play, whether it’s tight end or linebacker.”
Three days in, Fedora said Tabb is making a smooth transition. “Man, he’s doing a really good job,” Fedora said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he could be a full-time linebacker and be playing in every game for us. The guy’s talented, he really is.” Fedora said Tabb is too valuable on offense to become a full-time linebacker, and the injury situation made this move necessary. But, the head coach would feel comfortable if Tabb were his middle linebacker week to week.
Tabb (6’3, 240 pounds) and Ebron (6’4, 245) are similar sizes with similar skill sets and personalities that align in the tight end room. Ebron said he was confident that his close friend could be contributor on defense. “He played linebacker and tight end in high school, and his skill set’s not different (from what it was),” he said. “He can do it in college, just like a quarter of our team. We have a wide variety of athletes, and Jack just happens to be the athlete this year that will maybe have to play both ways.”
The two Tar Heel tight ends are close on and off the field, and Tabb said he might enjoy laying a hit on Ebron in practice. “Just once,” he said. “I need him out there personally, too.”
“No, he doesn’t want that,” Ebron said in response. “We’re tight, but he doesn’t want that.”
Playful talk aside, Tar Heel fans want both Ebron and Tabb healthy for the season, as the two will be extremely valuable weapons on offense - and now, defense. Ebron made a cameo at defensive end last season, and it appears Tabb may be a contributor on that side of the ball as well.
“It is what it is,” Koenning said of the scholarship limitations and injuries that made the move necessary. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, but I promise you we’re doing the best we can with the guys we’ve got. Our guys right now are busting their tails, and we’re not slowing down because of that, I promise you.”
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