One of the brighter spots in an otherwise bleak defense in 2014 was the play of the linebackers, and some of the brightest stars of the defense again may come from this group. The change in scheme from the 4-2-5 to a 4-3 means the resumption of a more traditional role for the linebackers after some of the hybrid roles under the old system.
Any discussion of Carolina linebackers starts with senior Jeff Schoettmer, who has assumed he role of leader of the defense. Schoettmer had a breakout year last season in which he was second on the team in tackles, tied for second in tackles for loss, and chipped in a pair of interceptions. Schoettmer will anchor the defense this season from the middle linebacker spot.
The strong side linebacker spot will be held down by senior Shakeel Rashad, who played the Bandit position in the 4-2-5. Rashad shook off the injuries that nagged him earlier in his career to play in all 13 games last season and was tied for second on the team in quarterback hurries.
The biggest battle in training camp among the linebacking corps has been on the weak side, where presumed starter Cayson Collins has apparently been supplanted by junior Joe Jackson. Collins had a solid campaign as a true freshman last year with 36 tackles and two forced fumbles, but Jackson has been stepping out and pulled ahead in the preseason. Still you can expect to see plenty of Collins this season.
Another part of the complete overhaul of the defense by Larry Fedora and Gene Chizik has been the upgrades in the coaching staff, and linebacker coach John Papuchis is no exception. Papuchis comes to Chapel Hill from Nebraska, where he was most recently defensive coordinator and where he worked with defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who was himself a former defensive coordinator at Air Force. In other words, two of UNC's three defensive position coaches are former FBS defensive coordinator, and the defensive coordinator won a national championship as a head coach. What a defensive staff upgrade for the Tar Heels.
But all the coaching experience in the world is not going to hide the chief concern among the linebackers, which is quality depth. Schoettmer, Rashad, Jackson, and Collins are four solid players for three positions, but after that this group gets very young and very inexperienced very quickly. Only Dan Mastromatteo saw significant action last season, and most of that was on special teams. Behind him on the two-deep chart are freshmen and more freshmen. These guys are going to have to grow up quickly for Carolina to progress on defense.