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April 9, 2013Throughout this year's spring football season for North Carolina, one of the biggest goals on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball has been to establish depth.
There's also been a need to fill multiple starting positions left behind by graduated seniors.
One such position is the 'Bandit,' that hybrid role that combines elements of defensive end and outside linebacker in Carolina's 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
Coming off the graduation of Dion Guy, who held down the job through much of Larry Fedora's first season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are now looking to find new fits at this key position.
The unit is a little hampered without Darius Lipford, the rising fourth-year junior who hasn't played since the 2011 Independence Bowl loss to Missouri in Shreveport.
As a precaution, the UNC coaches have held him out this spring, but he'll look to slowly work his way back into the mix starting with this summer.
Right now junior Norkeithus Otis and sophomore Shakeel Rashad are the top two players for the Tar Heels at 'Bandit.'
Rashad came on strong early in the spring season and spent a lot of time with the first defensive unit, but Otis has grown by leaps and bounds and now he's been getting reps with the starters.
"Yeah, they're getting a lot of really good reps. That's a great competition right now," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora about the 'Bandits.'
"It's very competitive. Shakeel is a great athlete. Junior (Gnonkonde), he's a great athlete. We just compete each and every day," Otis added.
Otis was recruited to UNC as an outside linebacker and spent most of last season learning the new position, though an ankle injury made things very difficult at times.
"This is the first time that I've seen Otis really healthy," Fedora said. "Last year he was hobbled by a high ankle sprain the entire season and so this is really the first time I've seen him be able to go full speed, and he's doing some nice things. (The scrimmage in Charlotte) was the first live reps he's gotten practice-wise. So that was really good."
"It was tough (last season), because I wanted to be the starter out there, but sometimes you've got to sit back and wait for your spot, and when you do, you just compete each and every day," Otis added.
He was hobbled for a week or so at the very beginning of this year's spring season with a knee sprain, but in recent weeks Otis has been going to full strength and he's playing like a veteran with something to prove.
"He (Otis) was a little bit banged up (early on this spring). He's got a little bit of an MCL sprain, but he didn't have any problems (in the scrimmages)," Fedora said.
"It's been going good. I got a little banged up at the beginning, but now things are going okay," he told us. "It (the ankle and knee) has been feeling good. I'm learning the defense, flying around and having fun."
Naturally Otis is thrilled about getting the chance to compete for a starting job this spring, and the fact that he's been running at times with the 'ones' in practices and scrimmages as an indicator that the UNC coaches think he might be able to help the defense in 2013.
But Otis also realizes that Rashad is right there, battling for the same job and also getting reps with the starters in practice. Clearly nothing is set in stone at this time, and the two players are both going to be looked on to play a lot come the season.
"It feels good (working with the starters). It makes me happy, but I've just got to keep working every day just being able to learn the system, and discipline," Otis said.
For Rashad, who came in as a true freshman and recorded 18 tackles in eight games of backup and starting duty at the 'Bandit' last fall, this spring has been about learning, developing, and taking the experiences from last season and using them to his benefit.
"Shakeel, he did some nice things. I noticed a couple real nice plays out of him No. 42," said Fedora after a recent scrimmage.
"Shakeel, one thing, he's got experience. He played all last year. And he's not a freshman anymore. You can tell. I mean, the way he approaches it. The way he approaches practice and everything, he's experienced and he feels real good about himself," Fedora added.
"It's been going great," Rashad said about this spring's series of workouts. "I feel like I've come a long way even since last season. I've gotten a lot stronger and a lot faster. I'm understanding the scheme now with the whole offseason studying, and I'm excited to get back into the season."
Rashad readily admitted to us that a lot of the time last season he was running around without full knowledge of what was going on.
He would see defensive plays and his responsibilities written on paper, but he wasn't gaining a complete grasp of his surroundings when it came to being out on the field.
He says that he's come along in that area during the offseason with help from Ron West and the other members of the Carolina defensive staff.
"It's funny, because those pictures (in the playbook) make sense now. It's not just arrows. It makes sense. I feel myself understanding the scheme, so I'm able to fit into my position a lot better, understand where I can make plays and where I'm setting other people up. I feel like I understand the defense a lot better now," Rashad told us.
"I'm working more with Coach West. (He's) just helping us understand the game more, helping us run keys, read pass keys. Stuff like that," added Otis. "Oh, I love it. Coach West, Coach Fedora, and Coach Vic (Koenning), they're all great guys."
"We're working with the linebackers, the 'Bandits' and the linebackers working together," said Rashad. "It's kind of different."
"He (West) is a little bit of an old school kind of coach is what you'd describe him as. I wouldn't stay stereotypical 'old school.' We know each other very well, but you don't completely know someone in two or three months. So we're growing closer and closer, but he knows his football. I absolutely understand that."
Since they do each have some game experience, Rashad and Otis have been able to help bring along Junior Gnonkonde, the redshirt freshman currently working as the third 'Bandit.'
"It's helped us a lot (having some experience). It's taken a lot of stress off us, because last year I was stressing because I didn't really know the plays and the system. So now this year it's a whole lot better," Otis said. "It helps out a lot, because some of the guys ask me questions. They're able to look up to me, and I feel special to be a veteran now."
"We've really stepped our game up, up there (in terms of knowledge)," added Rashad. "One thing I've always struggled with is being a vocal leader, but what I feel I can do is being a leader by example. I can work hard. I can make plays. and I can push other guys to do the same."
"I know (during one spring practice) I was up on the field and I was a little bit late making the call, and Kareem (Martin)---we're another year under the defense---he makes the call for me. And the same thing happens with me. I see something that I know can help him on his (Martin's) side of the line and I will call it out to him."
"So it's definitely helping a lot, coming a year further, growing with these guys, and I feel it will make a really big difference (once the season gets here). I'm seeing the missed assignments so farther and farther down, in our room especially. I know we're getting a lot out of our time."
The 'Bandit' is designed to do many things, but above all be a hunter, stalking down opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers with relentless pressure.
When it works it's a sight to behold, but last season Carolina simply wasn't getting enough pressure to make the 'Bandit' position reach anything close to its full capability.
West and Koenning are making a significant priority this spring out of getting to the quarterback and in recent scrimmages there's been evidence of progress.
In the most recent open scrimmage in Kenan Stadium on Friday, Otis had a sack early on of quarterback Bryn Renner.
"So far in the spring they've really put an emphasis on pass rushing with the 'Bandit,'" said Rashad. "I know we didn't get a lot of it out of that position last year, and so it really has felt like a playmaking position. And that's what we're really aiming to make it be."
"We've come a long way towards it in the offseason, and we're going to make more strides this spring. And then over the summer we're going to do it again. Stronger, faster, and understand the defense. I feel like I've made some strides in that, but I definitely still have a long way to go."
It's obvious there's fierce competition going on between Rashad and Otis for that starting job at 'Bandit,' but they're both working well together along with the UNC linebackers, who they sit in position meetings with.
There's no animosity or hard feelings with these guys fighting for a job. It's not like that.
Rashad, Otis, Gnonkonde, Lipford, and the Tar Heel linebackers are all coming together in the spirit of bringing along the entire defense.
"You know, we work together. We have fun together. So everyone is pushing each other. It's a lot of fun," Rashad said.