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July 21, 2009Three years ago Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter had to play because the Carolina coaching staff had no choice, given injury and lack of depth.
This year, the pair could become all-conference performers or even more.
Together with redshirt freshman Zach Brown, this group of starting linebackers give the Tar Heels one of the fastest, if not the fastest, group of 'backers in the nation.
All three ran sub-4.5 40-yard dashes, with Brown vying to be the fastest player on the roster before the incoming freshmen arrived.
Sturdivant and Carter bring more than their superior physical traits to the field, though. Each has played a lot of football in two years. They should know where to be and how to help the younger players learn where they should be.
"I think the strength of your football team is the leadership and the willingness to be mentors," Coach Butch Davis said. "I think we're going to have more than just one or two guys who are going to be great leaders.
"A lot of times guys have a hard time assuming leadership roles when they're young and inexperienced," Davis said. "There is almost like, 'I'm not sure I'm worthy of that, or I deserve that.' Well, now after some of these guys have started for 22 or 23 games, they feel confident their performance speaks loud enough that they can be vocal enough to be a leader."
But what really makes linebacker a special position at Carolina now is the depth chart is no longer rice-paper thin. Guys such as Deion Guy, Ebele Okakpu,, Herman Davidson and eventually Kevin Reddick are going to provide quality depth. Guy's name could be heard on the public-address system during the spring game repeatedly.
If there is a negative, it's that Brown and the backups lack game experience. But that is a far better problem to have than what Carolina face two years ago when Davis wasn't sure who he might put on the field at linebacker sometimes, especially if there was one more injury.
For this defense to become what the players, coaches and fans expect it to be, the linebackers must play exceedingly well. They are a key to stopping the run, and with their speed there is no excuse for running backs to make the corner consistently on UNC.
To run against Carolina, teams should have to try to come straight at the Tar Heels.
Whether this becomes the reality of the situation depends on how well the defensive line helps in keeping opposing linemen off the linebackers and how well the linebackers are able to shed blockers and make the correct reads.
One thing is for sure: It will be a lot easier correct errors on the run with the speed that these guys have than if this group was like some in the past that had to anticipate with near perfection to get to the right spot on time.