Lipford’s recovery should boost Tar Heels
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora described linebacker Darius Lipford’s athleticism as “freakish.” But when Lipford was running to the sidelines during a recent practice, he barely could move.
“He looked like his eyes were about to roll back in his head a couple times,” Fedora said.
Lipford hasn’t played since the 2011 Independence Bowl, when he tore the ACL in his left knee for the first time. The junior from Lenoir then tore his ACL again last summer. So while his teammates were practicing a year ago, Lipford was riding an exercise bike on the sidelines.
“He’s been riding a bike for two years,” Fedora said. “That bike’s a whole lot easier (than practice).”
Still, Fedora has penciled him in at bandit, a defensive lineman/linebacker position in UNC’s 4-2-5 defense. Fedora said the junior bench presses more than 400 pounds, cleans more than 375 pounds, squats more that 500 pounds, was close to 11 feet in the broad jump and has a 38-inch vertical.
“He’s freakish in what he can do as far as strength and jumping and running,” Fedora said. “So I think he fits that hybrid position pretty well — a guy who can come off the edge and go get the QB and also a guy who can cover a slot receiver.”
Of course, the last time Lipford was on the field, the entire coaching staff was different and the bandit didn’t exist at UNC.
“He looks like a guy that hasn’t been on the field in two years,” Fedora said. “But he has tremendous amounts of athleticism.”
As the recent practice showed, Lipford said the hardest part about coming back from his injuries is transitioning to defending UNC’s no-huddle offense. Lipford ran with the skill position players during his summer training to improve his conditioning.
“The speed is a dramatic difference,” Lipford said. “Just being able to catch your breath and get lined up for the next play, especially with the high tempo, hurry-up offense.”
Another big change is playing with his hand in the dirt, as he sometimes must do as a down lineman.
“It’s a big difference, going down in the trenches,” Lipford said. “It’s a whole different world in there. Instead of playing from depth where you get to feel your way through the gaps, you have more hand-to-hand combat with the lineman.”
The Tar Heels’ defense struggled in conference play a year ago, and Lipford said he saw lots of situations where his athleticism could have helped, especially when it came to making big plays. In a practice this past week, he ran two interceptions back for touchdowns.
A groin tweak has slowed him during training camp, but it wasn’t serious enough to force him back on the bike during practice. He’s had enough of those days.
“I got my Lance Armstong on a little bit,” Lipford said. “But I’m glad that’s over with.”
Three offensive players were practicing with the defense Monday. It was a permanent move for two — wide receiver Damien Washington now is a safety, while offensive guard J.J. Patterson will play on the defensive line. Tight end Jack Tabb also spent the day with the linebackers.
Instead of showing how comfortable he was with the depth on offense, Fedora said the moves were more a sign of how thin the units are on defense.
“Usually when you’re moving people, it’s not because you have a comfort level somewhere else but you’re really worried about a depth situation where you are,” Fedora said. “So you’re trying to get people over there to help.”
Tabb caught 12 passes for 144 yards plus three two-point conversions a year ago. While preseason all-ACC tight end Eric Ebron has a lock on the starting job, the Tar Heels are expected to use plenty of two tight-end sets with Ebron and Tabb.
“Jack is probably one of our brightest football players as far as his football savvy,” Fedora said. “We feel like we can throw Jack over, let him learn base defense as a linebacker, learn some things about it, bring him back in three to four days and throw him back in at tight end and he’ll know it like it’s nothing.”
UNC on ESPNU
The team will be featured on ESPNU’s weekly All-Access today at 5 p.m. The show promises an “inside look” at UNC, with cameras in the meeting rooms and coaches wearing microphones at practice.