By Turner Walston
The heart of the Carolina defense is the linebacking corps. With senior bandit Norkeithus Otis redshirt junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer and senior will linebacker Travis Hughes setting the tone, the Tar Heels are in very good hands. The linebacking corps has an experienced core plus young talent eager to make a difference on Saturdays.
“It’s been successful so far,” Schoettmer said of this fall’s training camp. “The main thing is, we’ve come out with no injuries so far.” That fact can’t be overstated. Last fall, Carolina was bitten by the injury bug at linebacker. Tight end Jack Tabb was forced into action on the other side of the ball due to the attrition. This fall, the team as a whole is more mindful of injury prevention. They’re conditioning after every practice to make sure bodies are ready for the rigors of a season.
“We came out of camp limping last year,” said Tommy Richardson, a graduate assistant and former Tar Heel linebacker. “We wanted to make sure we were smart and not limping after camp, so that’s why you see the conditioning.”
One practice that has been double beneficial in that regard is allowing the second-string Tar Heels to rotate in more often during scrimmage downs. That gives depth players more experience while allowing for rest and mental engagement. “We get our conditioning numbers up and guys are able to get mental reps,” Richardson said. “They’re locked in, so you see when they come out a lot of times they just turn right around and they’re looking right at the play, so those guys are doing a great job of being able to lock in mentally and get those mental reps without getting the physical toll on their body.”
In his first two seasons, Larry Fedora was often not satisfied with the depth of talent on his team. There were certainly talented players on the roster, but often there was a drop-off on the second and third strings. While Fedora is always looking for more players, he has to be pleased with the amount of playmakers at linebacker and bandit. Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo continue to get quality reps at linebacker, and one sophomore in particular is steppin’ out. “If I had to pick out one guy out of the whole camp who has kind of turned himself around, I’d pick Joe Jackson or Sam Smiley,” Fedora said. “It’d be one of those two. Joe’s right there.”
Jackson was recruited as a ram but has converted to linebacker. He then spent time in the weight room and at the training table to get his body into linebacker shape. “You can tell he’s gotten bigger and really worked on his strength in the off-season, and he’s making plays for us,” Schoettmer said.
“I’ve definitely worked hard for it; I will say that,” Jackson said when learning of the head coach’s praise. “I’ve really been trying to step up my game for the team and really be a guy the team can count on.”
This spring, a light came on for Jackson when he realized exactly what he’d need to do to be a reliable playmaker for the Tar Heels. Talent had earned him a scholarship, but now only hard work would get him on the field. “That’s when I began to really take those big steps, really begin to work my craft and do what I needed to do in order to help this team,” he said. That was day and night in that playbook, training when I wasn’t expected to train, lifting when I wasn’t expected to lift, gaining weight . . . just those little things that really help me step my game up.”
It also means seeking out teammates for help and encouragement. “He’s always asking questions in the meeting room,” Schoettmer said. “He was always one of the guys that if he doesn’t understand it, he’ll speak up. He’s not a guy to sit back and say he understands it when he really doesn’t just to get the coach off of him. He’s always seeking more information which is helpful.”
“I really look up to those guys,” Jackson said of his older teammates. “I really think that this camp we’ve pushed each other, especially me and Travis. We’ve learned from each other just talking in the meeting room, conversing about assignments. We’ve really helped each other to get to that next level.”
The nature of this Tar Heel defense is that the play of the linebackers will affect both the defensive line in front and the secondary behind. Just like on the human body, a solid core (or corps, as it were) is of paramount importance in building a foundation of strength. With quality leaders and talented depth, Carolina is positioned well at the heart of the defense.