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July 8, 2011One of the few positives in having 14 players miss all or parts of last season as result of the NCAA investigation at North Carolina is that many others were able to see major action for the Tar Heels, especially on defense.
The experienced gained by those players will start to pay dividends in about a month when competition for starting and backup positions begin in preseason camp.
As I discussed last week about the offense, some of the most interesting depth chart battles on defense this fall will be for the No. 2 positions.
Backup roles at linebacker and in the secondary are expected to be the most hotly contested affairs, mainly between players who were forced into action last season due to injuries or absences.
With Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant hindered by injuries at various times, Zach Brown emerged to finish second on the team in tackles at linebacker last season.
Brown, who is one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's fastest players, is expected to take over as the starter at the WILL or weak-side position this fall, while returning starter Kevin Reddick mans the MIKE or middle spot again.
Behind both of those players are experienced hands in senior Ebele Okakpu (Brown) and junior Dion Guy (Reddick).
The situation at the SAM or strongside position became less stable in May when senior Herman Davidson decided to transfer.
Davidson played in all 13 games last season as a reserve and was considered the main contender for a starting job at SAM.
The odds-on favorite going into preseason camp now to win the job is sophomore Darius Lipford, who was forced into action as a true freshman in 2010. Lipford is a rangy, athletic linebacker who played in 11 games and even made one start last season.
But spelling Lipford could be any number of players. Sophomore Curtis Campbell, who moved from safety to linebacker in the spring, and redshirt freshman P.J. Clyburn, who played safety in high school, are the leading contenders.
Clyburn has the potential to be a big-play maker for the Tar Heels once he's gained some experience, but may not have the maturity to be a full-time performer just yet.
The wild card at SAM could be incoming freshman Travis Hughes.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Virginian was one of the jewels of UNC's recruiting class and one of the nation's top linebacker prospects. He could conceivably play any of the three linebacker positions for the Tar Heels, but with the need at SAM being greater we expect him to battle for playing time quicker at that spot.
Strong safety is another position that wasn't exactly settled coming out of spring practice and featured a number of players competing for the starting and backup jobs.
Senior Jonathan Smith returns after sitting out the 2010 season and is expected to battle junior Gene Robinson for the No. 1 spot.
Smith has struggled to establish himself during his UNC career, but he is a physical, talented athlete whom the coaching staff is hoping is ready to blossom.
Robinson was one of several players who stepped in to save the Tar Heels last season. He filled in all over the secondary and even made four starts at safety.
The loser in the competition to start could then face a challenge for the backup spot from converted cornerback Josh Hunter and senior Brian Gupton.
Hunter is another gifted, highly recruited player with great potential, but currently lacks safety experience.
Like Smith, Gupton sat out 2010 after seeing action on special teams in 2009.
Although UNC's defensive front appears stable at both the No. 1 and 2 positions on the depth chart, developments between now and the start of training camp could lead to more competition for backup jobs at end and tackle.
The decision earlier this month by Quinton Alton to transfer and previous dismissal of Jared McAdoo from the program leaves redshirt freshman Ethan Farmer as the probably backup to all-star candidate Tydreke Powell at one tackle spot.
But Farmer could face a huge challenge if the NCAA grants a waiver to Brandon Willis.
Willis, of course, originally enrolled at UNC back in January 2010. But by August he decided to transfer to UCLA where he spent last season but didn't play as a true freshman.
Due to the declining health of his grandmother, who lives in North Carolina, Willis returned to UNC last spring. But before he can take the field for the Tar Heels, the NCAA must waive it's rule that players must sit out a year when they transfer from another school.
According to UNC's football spokesman Kevin Best, Willis status for the fall is still pending.
If he's granted the waiver, the 6-3, 270-pounder could immediately become a factor at the tackle position.
The X-factor at end is Michael McAdoo.
The 6-7, 245-pounder was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, but just last week McAdoo filed a lawsuit in hopes of being reinstated for the 2011 season.
His attorney is seeking an injunction that would allow McAdoo to play as a senior, an addition that would automatically make him a strong candidate to back up starters Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss at the end spots.
Of course, to earn that position, McAdoo would have to fight off sophomores Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, who earned their stripes when pressed into action as a true freshmen last season.
It won't be long before we can really start to see these scenarios unravel.
The ACC Football Kickoff is scheduled July 24 and 25 in Pinehurst, and then it's on to preseason practice. The long summer is almost over!