By Turner Walston
“I like to think I’m pretty good at making people smile,” Shakeel Rashad says. “Smiles are good.” The junior bandit is smiling himself, now that he’s back on Carolina football practice field. Rashad missed the first eight games of the 2013 season after suffering a knee injury early in training camp. Now, with the knee at 100 percent, Rashad is once again ready to contribute to his team’s success.
Last November, Rashad returned to action and recorded a sack against Virginia. He would finish the year with nine tackles. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Rashad still wasn’t fully healthy. “I can say that I probably wasn’t at 100 percent,” he says. “I didn’t know it, nobody knew it. It’s not a decision that was made in that way.” With the time that has passed since his injury and recovery, he now understands what is and what isn’t 100 percent. “I thought I was at 100 percent,” he says. “With the trainers, with the coaches watching, I was performing well enough that we all thought I was at 100 percent. Maybe it is that I just got that much better in the off-season, but I feel so much better now than I did back then.”
A healthy Shakeel Rashad has the opportunity to make an impact on the Tar Heel defense, even if he’s behind Norkeithus Otis at bandit. Attrition up front has forced some personnel to be shifted around, like bandit Mikey Bart moving to defensive end. The coaches have had to get creative and the players have had to be flexible. If nothing else, the Tar Heels will have versatile athletes capable of stopping an offense in different ways.
At bandit in particular, head coach Larry Fedora feels good about the depth. “I would say we have some numbers right now. We’ve got some guys that can play,” he said at the ACC Kickoff in July. “We’ve got quite a few guys that we feel comfortable with in the rotation.”
Along with Otis and Rashad, the team boasts Malik Carney, Kemmi Pettway and converted linebacker Alex Bales. “It’s such a talented position, it’s incredible,” Rashad says. Coach Ron West also has graduate assistant (and former All-ACC Tar Heel) Tommy Richardson are mentoring the group. “We’ve learned so much about the position,” Rashad says. “We’re competing. We’re going to all do our very best and see who he puts on the field, but whoever it is is going to make some big plays.”
For his part, Rashad now has the experience of his freshman year, in which he saw action in 11 games and collected 18 tackles, and that of watching the bulk of last year before returning to play at less than his best. Seeing the game from the sideline, and then being forced to play slower (whether he knew it or not) gave Rashad a unique perspective. “You start to see things, because you know you’re going to have to make more precise steps so you can be able to make a play,” he says. “Now that I’m moving faster, got the knee 100 percent, it’s feeling great, so I’m feeling like I’m making more plays now than I would have been able to make before I got hurt at all.”
And despite bandit having a clear leader atop the depth chart in Otis, Rashad is enjoying the challenge of winning his way back on the field in whatever role. “It’s awesome to have that opportunity again,” he says. “It’s so much fun to be out here. That’s part of the reason that I decided to come back late last season, that it’s so much fun. We put in so much work together as a team that you just can’t stand to be away. Now that I’m back for a full season, fingers crossed, I’m really excited to come back and contribute and help the team win.”
It was two years ago, the last time Rashad played many meaningful snaps. He was a freshman looking up at leaders in the huddle like Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams. Much has changed in the meantime, and now Rashad himself may need to be one of those leaders. “Now, I’ve got to lead when I need to, and obviously let other guys lead when it’s their time,” he says.
Shakeel Rashad is on the field again as a Tar Heel, this time, truly at 100 percent. He’s moving well, he feels good, and he’s eager to contribute. And he’s smiling. Rashad has a great smile, and he’s good at coaxing one out of others. In fact, he’s had to rein that in a bit. “There are certain times when you’re not supposed to smile,” he says. “I’m still struggling at 20 years old to find those times.”
That may be true, but in a little more than two weeks, Shakeel Rashad will run out on the Kenan Stadium field and the Tar Heels will take on Liberty. He’ll be smiling then, and it will be just fine.