WALK-ON TO STARTER?
It was the middle of practice on the third day of North Carolina’s training camp when linebackers coach Ron West told Jeff Schoettmer, “OK, you’re with the 1s.”
With that, a walk-on from Dallas became the favorite to start at inside linebacker.
“I couldn’t think about it much because I was in the middle of practice,” Schoettmer said. “I couldn’t diagnose ‘I’m with the 1s.’ I just had to go play, really.”
For three years, Kevin Reddick was a mainstay in the middle of the Tar Heels’ defense, finishing in the top two in tackles each season and providing much-needed leadership during a period of coaching turmoil.
Now that position may fall to Schoettmer, who had to send his tapes to UNC instead of being recruited, came in as a safety and missed spring camp with a foot injury.
“You just have to have confidence,” Schoettmer said. “Coaches put us in there for a reason. If they didn’t have confidence they wouldn’t put us in there.”
Coming out of Jesuit College Prep, Schoettmer received scholarship offers from Nevada (who wanted him to greyshirt, or not begin the fall with the team) and Air Force.
Not thrilled with either option, Schoettmer expanded his search. His father Steve played football at Duke, and his brother Stephen (baseball) and mother Donna (tennis) were athletes at Wake Forest, so he was familiar with the area and he got in touch with then-UNC coach Butch Davis.
Davis told him on a summer visit that the team really liked his tape, and if he worked hard he would have a chance to play and get a scholarship.
Davis would be fired later that summer, and scholarship reductions as the result of NCAA violations ensured Schoettmer would remain a walk-on. But the part about playing remained accurate.
After taking a redshirt year, the 6-foot-1 freshman was moved to ram — a hybrid safety/linebacker position — when Larry Fedora became UNC’s coach, and he worked his way onto the field last season. Schoettmer appeared in all 12 games, finishing with 23 tackles, including seven against Idaho, and recovering a fumble against N.C. State.
Schoettmer continued to add weight after last season — he’s gained 35 pounds, up to 228, since he came to campus — and was moved to linebacker this year.
Despite suffering a Jones fracture on his foot and missing five months during the offseason, Schoettmer was pegged as a backup to redshirt sophomore Nathan Staub at the “Mike” linebacker as fall camp opened. But Staub suffered an undisclosed injury early in camp — a source close to the team, who isn’t authorized to speak publically because Fedora doesn’t disclose injury information, said “he tore his knee up.”
That moved Schoettmer into the starter’s role, with redshirt freshman Dan Mastromatteo as the backup.
Schoettmer said that starting bandit Norkeithus Otis, his best friend on the team, is giving him confidence and encouragement. So are Travis Hughes and Tommy Heffernan, who are battling for the other starting linebacker spot.
Schoettmer also learned a lot from watching Reddick, who was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Saints. He said a big key is communication — making sure the linemen are in the right gaps and the safeties are on the same page.
Even with Reddick, the defense struggled to stop conference opponents — six ACC teams put up at least 28 points last season playing against Fedora’s new 4-2-5 formation.
“I think it’s a big chip on our shoulder,” Schoettmer said. “I don’t want to blame it that we didn’t know the scheme last year, but now we’re way more comfortable with the scheme.
“The offense doesn’t remind us in a bad way, but they let us know that the majority of the season they carried us last year. It’s our turn. We want to have a breakout year and kind of shock everyone.”
If the defense does break out this season, there could be a walk-on in the middle of it all.
“I’m trying not to think of it like that,” Schoettmer said. “They have confidence in me and if you keep making plays, it doesn’t matter if you’re a walk-on or on scholarship. If you can play, you can play.”