Schoettmer: Tar Heel LB corps back on track for 2014

Jul. 16, 2014 @ 07:31 PM

North Carolina was so thin at linebacker by the end of the 2013 season that its starting linebackers in the Belk Bowl were all-ACC second-team safety Tré Boston and freshman reserve Nathan Staub.

The Tar Heels’ depth at that position took a hit this season before training camp even started with the departure of projected starter Darius Lipford, who entered the NFL supplemental draft last week. But junior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said it’s nothing UNC can’t overcome.

“I think it’s a loss, but we have some bodies that can make up for his talent,” Schoettmer said Wednesday. “He’s real athletic, but we have a lot of depth that we’re developing.”

For starters, Schoettmer said he’s completely healthy after a shoulder injury that limited him to a supporting role in the Belk Bowl. The team’s second-leading tackler last season, Schoettmer said he’s gained 10 pounds and is putting up better strength numbers in the weight room than he did last season before the injury.

Schoettmer also said that the other returning starting linebacker, Travis Hughes, has matured since his reinstatement to the team. Hughes was suspended temporarily in January after he was charged with misdemeanor assault following an altercation with a campus parking attendant.

“He made a jump this summer,” Schoettmer said. “(Senior bandit) Norkeithus (Otis) and I sat down with him and said, ‘Look, you have one more fall here, you have so much talent that a lot of people on our team don’t have.’

“He still channels his football energy, which is good, but off the field he’s more laid back and focusing on his football. He’s shown a lot of maturity this summer.”

Behind Schoettmer and Hughes, sophomores Staub, Dan Mastromatteo and Joe Jackson (who moved over from bandit) should provide depth, while Schoettmer said freshman Cayson Collins can replace Lipford on third down and pass rush situations.

Lipford was one of the most athletic players on the roster, but Schoettmer said that even last season the defensive issues came from mental mistakes, not talent. He remembered a play when the linebacker didn’t communicate with the safety, leaving a halfback unguarded on a swing pass. Another time, a defensive lineman was supposed to slant but didn’t, leaving a running gap open.

A third year in UNC’s 4-2-5 defense should make the players more comfortable, as should more time in the film room — a new NCAA rule allows players to spend two hours a week going over film with coaches.

“Guys are pushing each other more than they ever have because we can taste it,” Schoettmer said. “In past years, a Coastal (Division title) was a possibility but it wasn’t expected, really. This year it’s expected.”

Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.