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April 10, 2013As North Carolina winds down spring football this week, the Tar Heel coaches have a significantly better feel for the depth chart and who they'll be able to rely on come the fall.
At the 'Will' linebacker, one of the two linebacker positions in the 4-2-5 that focuses on the 'weak' side of the offense, the Tar Heels have a pair of seasoned veterans that have been battling it out.
Juniors Tommy Heffernan and Travis Hughes, who have each started at different points in their respective UNC careers, have been battling it out for the starting job at 'Will,' and while both of them will be looked upon heavily to play, right now Hughes appears to have the inside track to the starting job.
"The first couple weeks were pretty good. All the boys are moving real fast, getting ready and everything. It's going to be a good Spring Game," said Hughes in a recent interview with Tar Heel Illustrated.
Although Hughes and Heffernan are playing the linebacker position opposite four-year starter Kevin Reddick, the Tar Heels have missed Reddick's steady presence and solid production at the middle or 'Mike' linebacker post this spring.
"Kevin was one of the biggest leaders that I've ever seen in my life," said Hughes.
"Just being under him meant so much to me and everything. He's still helping me out a lot. He's always telling me about little techniques that will make me better and everything. So Kev got me good. I'm going to be all right."
Reddick pushed Hughes to become a better football player, but so does Heffernan, an inspiring player who originally came to UNC as a walk-on under the previous regime but worked his way into a scholarship and a prominent role on the Carolina defense.
"Tommy has pushed me every day. I'm pushing Tommy every day. We're always going at it, always talking smack in the locker room and everything," Hughes said.
Despite the competition for the same job, Hughes says that he and Heffernan have emerged as close friends. And with the same 'T.H.' initials, they've come up with a clever nickname for themselves.
"We're brothers," Hughes said of his relationship with Heffernan. "We call ourselves 'TH-TH,' so it's a great competition, but it's all cool."
"Every day we're like a family in that position room. So everywhere, we're together. Everybody basically helps everybody out. You know what I mean? That's all that is."
The good thing from UNC's perspective is that there's no huge drop-off with Hughes and Heffernan because they've both shown they can enter the game and perform.
It's a good problem to have, quite frankly.
For despite all the personnel and depth issues the Tar Heels currently have, the fact that there's two experienced veterans at such a key position as 'Will' linebacker should help the coaches sleep a little better at night.
If either Hughes or Heffernan get hurt, either can enter the game for the other and produce. Or they can just play a natural two-man rotation, thereby ensuring neither of them get over-worked and they enter the game fresh and ready to perform.
"Most definitely (there's no drop-off)," Hughes said.
Nobody has ever questioned whether or not Hughes has the talent to become a big-time player. A former Rivals 250 linebacker and four-star prospect, Hughes made a huge splash back when he chose North Carolina out of the Class of 2011.
But over his first two seasons at UNC Hughes frustrated fans and his coaches quite often by playing out of position and allowing himself to get taken out of plays.
This offseason he made it a primary focus to study himself on film in an effort to cut down on the mental mistakes and improve his instincts and field positioning.
"It was a growing process for me last year. I got a lot of reps on the field last year, playing right beside Tommy and everything. So me and Tommy are going back and forth like that, helping me progressing," Hughes said. "I feel like I'm going to be solid coming into next season.
"Most definitely (I've been working on) just making sure I got all my plays solid, and trying to slow down---sometimes I play a little bit too fast and everything---(so) just try to slow down, get my keys right, and just play technically-sound football, film watching and everything, I learned a lot of stuff. Especially being around Kevin and everything."
The fact that he's got some legitimate game experience is greatly aiding Hughes as he looks to work his way into a permanent starter's role for the Tar Heels.
"It's great (to have some experience). It's tremendous. I mean, I'm coming into my junior year now, and everything has slowed down for me. So right now it's just all about playing football, having fun with the guys, and making my whole team better," he said.
Hughes has been impressed by the other linebacker position currently going on between redshirt freshmen Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo, who have been fighting in recent practices to replace Reddick in the middle.
"Nathan and Dan are doing a great job right now. They've got the system completely down right now and are just flying around. Both of them are learning, getting the reps down. Coach (Ron) West is doing a great job coaching them up. So they're looking good. They're developing really fast," said Hughes.
Hughes feels a sense of something to prove, along with the rest of the UNC defenders, coming off a mediocre statistical 2012 season, and with the losses of key players like Reddick and Sylvester Williams.
"The defense's goals are just to make a name for ourselves. I mean, our identity right now, because Kevin and Sly are gone, everybody's questioning our identity right now. But I feel like everybody is going to be surprised by the way our defense is going to go out and perform," he said.
Hughes has been pleased with the way UNC's new linebackers coach, Ron West, has come in and assimilated himself within the Tar Heel players.
West, a coach who is infinitely familiar with the 4-2-5 scheme, has been greatly helpful to Hughes and all the UNC linebackers this spring as they look to make key adjustments and improve dramatically across the board heading into the 2013 season.
"Coach West is awesome, man. Right now the transition, it hasn't dropped off too much with Coach West and Coach Vic (Koenning). Coach West knows his stuff. He's making us better already. (More) technically sound, definitely."