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November 15, 2013

Rashad's Return could pay Dividends

North Carolina's defense has been much-improved over the past three weeks as the Tar Heels have beaten Boston College, N.C. State, and Virginia in succession, and as they head to Pittsburgh for Saturday's road game in the Steel City, they'll be even deeper on that side of the ball as Shakeel Rashad returns for his second game.

Rashad made his season debut last week against Virginia, recording a couple of tackles and a sack in 29 plays, helping the UNC defense take control in its 45-14 triumph.

"I played last Saturday. Just maybe two or three weeks before that is when they said I might have a chance (to return). So I started going through the process of talking to Doctors and getting back in the running," Rashad told Tar Heel Illustrated earlier this week.

For Rashad, the return against the Cavaliers brought a difficult situation full-circle, as he's made a complete recovery from a meniscus tear in his right knee that when it first happened early in training camp appeared to be season-ending.

"It was the first day of practice (back in early August)," Rashad said about the knee injury. "I did know right away that it was bad. I didn't know what it was, but it felt bad. Those bags over there get a little bit tricky. It wasn't a person who did it to me. They hit back sometimes, and this time they hit back hard."

This was the third time that Rashad tore the meniscus---it first happened in high school and then again shortly after he arrived at UNC in the winter of 2012---but this time around, he impressed everyone, including himself, with his rapid and successful recovery.

"This was the same meniscus I tore when I first got here, and I actually did it once in high school," he said.

"It's great. When I first got hurt I was so sad knowing I'd be out for the whole season, but I smiled ear to ear when I found out I had a chance to come back, and I smiled ear to ear when I found out I would actually be able to actually come back, so it was great."

Rashad spent the months of August, September, and October following surgery performed by UNC surgeon Alex Creighton conducting upper-body workouts with the rest of the team, while slowly progressing his lower body under the watchful eye of the Tar Heel trainers.

"Six weeks you're allowed to go to 90 degrees (bending the knee) or whatever," he said.

"So when I went to six weeks, or whatever that week may have been, they said, 'You're allowed to leg press now,' and I leg pressed as hard as I could to make sure when the next mile marker came up, and I was able to do something else I would be strong going into that."

"With all that, I got to work out with the team for upper body, but my lower body was a little bit different. But I definitely did work out as hard as I could."

Though he wasn't able to start running full speed until a couple weeks back, he's now as close to 100 percent as he could have hoped to be before the injury, and way sooner than anyone could have projected when he first went down.

"I couldn't have hoped for the progress to go any better. I had swelling the first few days. The swelling is gone now. I'm still icing it to make sure it stays gone. But I've had no pain, no swelling. All the mobility I could ask for. And it's been awesome," Rashad said.

"Dr. Creighton, he did my surgery. He's really happy about it. Last time it just took me a few days of running for my knee to just puff up super fast, and this time it's not happening. So he's really pleased. The trainers are really pleased, and I haven't had any troubles with it," he continued.

Naturally Rashad's return has been welcomed by his coaches, who now have more depth than earlier in the season with he and Darius Lipford healthier and in position to shake up the rotation a little bit.

"It helps us tremendously (getting Rashad back), because you've got Norkeithus and Lipford, and now him (Rashad) and Mikey Bart. So we're able to roll them. We're able to use Lipford more in the 'Money' package and be able to use him more in the base (defensive schemes), so it gives us real good depth there," said Fedora.

"(He's) far enough ahead where they said he wasn't going to play this year, and now he's playing with four games left, so however far ahead that is."

"He's a great guy to have out at practice," added defensive coach Vic Koenning. "Wonderful young man. He's been a blessing just to have back out there on the practice field as much as anything."

Rashad had to re-adjust to the speed and tempo of practice and get his legs back underneath him, so the last couple of weeks has been more about re-gaining his stamina compared to learning the plays or adjusting to the various schemes.

"I feel like I tried to take away a lot of the adjustment by staying engaged with the plays," he replied. "I didn't have too much to learn when I came back. But it's been a little different. I was obviously a little out of shape when I came back. I had been doing a lot of working out with Coach Lou (Hernandez), but as far as running, I couldn't do much running until a few weeks before I was able to come back."

And while he may not be ready to play a full game, Rashad is more than capable of coming in for significant chunks, as he did last week against Virginia. He can particularly help UNC on long-yardage and pass rushing downs, as proven last week when he got a sack in his season debut.

"I've talked with a few people about maybe a limit on how many plays I can play, just because I'm not in the tip-top shape that I was in before. But it's not a super-small number, so I feel I like I can go in and I can really contribute in a lot of plays---as many plays as I could possibly need to play," he said.

Once it was determined that Rashad had progressed to the point where he could return to action this fall, he was left with a decision.

Do you take a medical redshirt and come back in 2014 with three full seasons of eligibility left, or do you come back, play out the remainder of this season, and then have two more seasons of eligibility?

"That was a decision, when someone gave me the decision to make, I called my parents. And they said, 'You know what? You make the decision. You're 19 years old. You make the decision and we'll support what you do.'" Rashad said.

"And so that night I went home and I sat down, and I kind of wrote down what I wanted to get done here academically. The classes I wanted to take and the major I wanted to get done. And I went and saw an Advisor and sat down and figured out in four years I'll be able to get done exactly what I want to get done."

"And at that point, when I figured out I could get it done academically, I said. 'I'm tired of watching. I want to get back and play.'"

"I can tell you that when I got injured, it wasn't some kind of conspiracy," Rashad continued. "They told me, 'You're out for the season.' But when the time came that I was able to get back and try to work back into it, everything went awesome. I don't know how, but the knee came back strong. They did an awesome job. I felt strong, and so they gave me the opportunity to try to play and it worked out well, thankfully."

And it could be a thankful thing as well for the North Carolina defense, who now have more bodies and more talent to throw at the potent offenses they'll play down the stretch.


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