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August 16, 2012UNC redshirt freshman Sam Smiley is in the midst of a heated position battle with fellow redshirt freshman Darien Rankin this summer for Carolina's open starting job at the free safety position.
And while Rankin appeared to hold the upper hand through the first week of camp, Smiley came out of the first scrimmage this past Saturday as the No. 1, and has been running with the starters all of this week.
"It's been going well," Smiley told Tar Heel Illustrated following Thursday's practice. "We've been making big plays, and I'm getting pushed by my backup, Darien Rankin, so it's been good."
College football coaches often like to say that intense position competition within a team makes people better, and that's what it seems to be doing for Smiley and Rankin as they battle it out each day.
It becomes a game of one-upsmanship that improves both Smiley and Rankin's chances of making potentially game-impacting plays in the secondary once they're taking on opposing teams in the fall instead of each other every day in practice.
"We've been coming out here to play. It makes it where if he (Rankin) gets a pick, I have to get a pick," Smiley said. "When Jabari Price gets a pick he talks about his picks, so we have to get some picks, too. Tre Boston has been boosting up our edge (saying), 'Let's go, let's go!' so it's been good."
Smiley has thrived so far in UNC's new 4-2-5 defense, as he's been able to use his unique set of speed, instincts, and ball skills to become a legitimate option in the last line of Carolina's defense.
He's added some weight and says he grew an inch or so between last season leading up to this fall.
"It (the defense) changed a lot, but I never knew I was going to move to safety (before the spring)," he said. "I was like 5-11, 180 (pounds), and now I've grown an inch. I'm six-feet, 185 (pounds) now, so I'm just grinding."
"Sam's got a chance to be a good player, but he's young," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora.
One big key for Smiley and the other UNC defensive backs this summer is on quickly overcoming mistakes and learning from them.
"It doesn't matter how talented a guy is. When he's young, he's going to make mistakes. You have to learn to live with those mistakes and you hope those mistakes don't get you beat," Fedora said. "And they can keep learning from them and eventually whittle them down so they don't have them."
"We understand that he (Smiley) is going to make some (mistakes), but he made a lot of progress this spring."
Smiley sees a UNC secondary filled with veterans and youthful talent that is gelling well through training camp, coming out each day to practice and making a bunch of plays.
"I see ourselves, we're progressing now. Our defense is getting steady now. We're just learning the same plays now instead of adding new plays," he said. "It's faster. Like the 'Ram', Gene Robinson, he's a safety really. There's a D-lineman (Dion Guy) that's fast. He plays linebacker. We've got a fast defense now. We don't show our coverages."
Individually for Smiley, this summer's camp has been able getting down his pass coverage techniques as well as improving his tackling ability, which is something that Tar Heel secondary coach/defensive coordinator Dan Disch has been on him to do.
"I had to get my technique very well, and I had to learn how to tackle instead of ankle-biting," he said. "Coach Disch, he gets on me a lot about tackling. He wants me to get my tackling technique better."
One of the first things Disch did with Smiley when the Tar Heels convened for spring ball earlier this year was move him to free safety from cornerback, where he played his redshirt season and where he was recruited by the previous regime.
The previous Tar Heel coaching regime preferred larger defensive backs that were interchangeable at the safety and cornerback spots, and Disch is the beneficiary of inheriting players like Smiley.
"I definitely feel like we've got some corners than can play safety," Smiley said. "Last year I was at corner so it was a different setup. But now I'm at safety and we move a lot, and I can read the quarterback. It's going very well."
While the battle rages on between Smiley and Rankin as to who will be on the field with the starting defense when UNC takes the field the first weekend in September against Elon, Smiley tells us he just wants to be in position to help the team get some victorie this year.
"I just want to win. I've got to make good plays, and I just want to win ball games this year. I'm excited. I'm ready for (the first) kickoff (of the season), because I'm going to be on the kickoff team. It's going to live," he said.