In Coach Larry Fedora's third season with the Heels a lot will be expected of the veteran linebacker corps. This year will also see a focus on the performance of the "Bandit" a third linebacker who will play in a roaming role as a jack of all trades defensive player.
The players to keep an eye on for this group will all be upperclassmen. Among the two central linebackers junior Jeff Schoettmer and senior Travis Hughes are positioned to be the starters and impact players across the defense. Linebacker coach Ron West has particularly singled out Hughes as being exceptionally sharp in scrimmages and training camp. At the bandit spot senior Norkeithus Otis appears to be penciled in as the starter. In camp Otis has done well matching up against offensive linemen. This could be a sign that the coaching staff plans to use the Bandit as more of a pass rusher this year.
The linebackers have a lot of depth. Sophomore Joe Jackson, sophomore Nathan Staub, sophomore Dan Mastromatteo, freshman Tyrell Tomlin, junior Darien Rankin and freshman Cayson Collins all provide depth at the linebacker spot whereas junior Shakeel Rashad is the principle backup to Otis at the Bandit spot.
The linebackers will need to step up this year. Carolina will be relying on the defense to hold leads that the offense earns. To do that the linebackers will need to be as versatile as the coaching staff envisions; they'll need to be able to rush the passer, prevent the run and cover receivers well. The key factor will be how many men the linebackers will need to do each of those things. If only the Bandit is needed to rush the passer on blitzes, if the six man front smothers the run game, and if they can cover receivers without safety help then the defense will be just as strong as the offense. The defense's effectiveness will be determined in many respects by how effective the linebackers are at doing each of those three things.