UNC sophomore linebacker Zach Brown made his first career start at 'Will' linebacker for the Tar Heels Saturday night against The Citadel, contributing four tackles (two solo, two assisted), including one tackle for loss.
While he admitted that he was nervous heading into his first collegiate start, Brown says he quickly overcame the early butterflies and settled into his role while helping the Tar Heel defenders keep the Bulldogs out of the end zone in a 40-6 wipeout.
"That was my first career start," he said. "It's good, because now we know we can hit other people instead of ourselves. We can actually tackle and everything."
"I was nervous in the beginning, but after the first play I just got the jitters out and went out and started playing ball," he added. "At first I was nervous, thinking 'I hope I don't mess up,' but then after a while I was like, 'I'm just going to play ball, and if I mess up we'll fix it on Sunday (in film meetings).'"
One of Brown's assisted tackles came on a play in which he ran down a Citadel player from behind after initially missing the tackle, earning himself high points in the 'Hustle' rating that the defensive coaches use in grading the players each week.
"I did good on the chasing part, because I remember one play, they (The Citadel) threw a ball across the field. I missed the tackle. I was running---it was on the left hash and I missed the tackle---and then he cut it all the way back across field to the right hash," Brown said. "Then I just kept running, and me and Bruce Carter made the tackle."
The sophomore outside linebacker said that the Tar Heel coaches were pleased with his performance and felt that he might have even overachieved against the Bulldogs, although he wasn't surprised with how effectively he played.
"I did all right for the first game. The coaches were surprised because they said I did better than they thought I was going to do," he said. "I told them, 'That's what I do.' I was like, 'I may ask questions in practice, because I want to know if this happens who's got this and what's going to happen, but I play ball.'"
Brown clearly has a great deal of confidence in his ability to chase, and considering the speed and athleticism that the Tar Heels will face this season by its opposition---starting in earnest this Saturday at Connecticut---he'll need every ounce of speed and tenacity to get it done.
"I can stop the ball. If we have a big play---if somebody is running the ball and they almost get to the 5 (yard-line)---I'm going try to chase them down and hope you don't score, because I know if he doesn't score that's another chance for us to keep them from getting seven (points)," he said. "They might get three, but I'm trying not to let them get seven. That's our goal."
Like his fellow returning players along the UNC defense, Brown says he has experienced a 'slowing' of the game as he's grown into his position and has gotten more comfortable with his surroundings on the collegiate gridiron over the last year.
"Yeah (the game has slowed down) because my freshman year the game was a lot faster, but now it's like I can see everything. It's like normal speed," he said.
As for he and his fellow starting linebacker mates Carter and Quan Sturdivant, Brown is part of a trio that can simply get after it.
"We just run to the ball. You'll at least see two of us if not all three of us around the ball at all times. We're just chasing the ball at all times," Brown said. "With the speed at linebacker you can't run directly at us, because all of us will be at the ball. If you run directly at us, we're going to make the plays."
A collective increased awareness of what the Tar Heels are trying to do schematically on defense is another factor that Brown says is aiding to the improvement of UNC on that side of the ball.
"Everybody has gotten smarter. Everybody has gotten a lot smarter in learning how to adjust to the people in front of them. Everybody is starting to be on the same page, so our defense is starting to click a lot more," he said.
The Tar Heels showed promising signs of an effective pass rush against The Citadel, producing five quarterback hurries, two sacks, and countless hits on the Bulldog's quarterbacks upon their releasing the ball.
Brown, knowing how an effective pass rush can make his job at linebacker easier, is naturally hopeful that his teammates up front will continue getting after the quarterback Saturday in Hartford against the Huskies.
"That just helps my job. That makes my job easier when I can sit and be a lot more patient," he said. "They (the defensive linemen) can just flush the quarterback out of the pocket, and then it will be easier for me to just 'zone' up or play 'man' (coverage) with my person."