As North Carolina approaches the end of this year's spring football season, the Tar Heel coaches are getting closer and closer to establishing and settling the pre-training camp depth chart at all the various positions.
At the 'Ram' position---a hybrid role in the 4-2-5 defensive scheme that combines elements of safety, linebacker, and a 'nickel' back----Carolina is replacing departed seniors Gene Robinson and Pete Mangum, both multi-year contributors.
Rising junior Brandon Ellerbe, the current favorite for the starters' role for Carolina at the 'Ram' heading into the 2013 season, gave Tar Heel Illustrated a brief insider's look into the position for those who aren't too familiar with it.
In its simplest terms, it's like having a fifth defensive back on the field most all the time.
"I can honestly say, it's basically like a 'nickel' back. I mean, you have to have the instincts of a corner but the awareness of a safety. You've kind of gotta be here and there, be able to get those hips off," Ellerbe said.
In the mix right now for the Tar Heels at 'Ram' are Ellerbe, redshirt freshman Joe Jackson and walk-on Ryan Mangum, Pete's younger brother.
"Ellerbe, Mangum, and we've also got Joe Jackson. Jo-Jo. All three of those guys (are working at the 'Ram')," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora in a recent interview.
Fedora is a great poker player when it comes to talking about the depth chart, and he's not quite ready to commit publicly that Ellerbe has locked up the job. But it sure seems to be heading in that direction.
"It's hard for me to tell you where they are right now. A lot of it is going to depend on those plays (they got in the scrimmages), each one of them. So we'll see where we are," the second-year UNC coach said.
Ellerbe, who has seen action as a backup in the secondary and on special teams over his first two seasons at UNC, now finds himself in position to be a secret weapon on the Carolina defense.
Knowing the need that the coaches and his UNC teammates have for him to step up with Robinson and Mangum gone, Ellerbe has taken it upon himself to spend much more time this offseason studying and preparing off the field than ever before.
"To be honest with you, it's a big turn-around. Losing Gene (Robinson) and Pete (Mangum), that was two big role models for me last year. They helped me take the pressure away. They helped me focus to get back into my playbook," Ellerbe said.
"Last year that was a big problem with me. I wouldn't get into my playbook, but this year I'm in it. I'm ready to help this team turn around, and I'm expecting some good things out of this defense."
Ellerbe, who scored a touchdown in UNC's recent scrimmage at Mallard High School in Charlotte after fielding a fumbled punt, has embraced the challenge of moving into a starter's role and having more people watching him as part of the regular defensive lineup.
"Actually, I feel like all the eyes are on me, because I have a lot of responsibility on this defense, like getting everybody lined up, you know, helping the secondary with extra calls and things like that," he said. "So I feel like I'm playing a big role in this defense this year, and I'm very excited."
UNC defensive coach Vic Koenning moved Ellerbe to the 'Ram' position last spring after he spent his first season as a Tar Heel as a backup safety in the old 4-3 scheme back in 2011.
Koenning, one of the architects of Carolina's unique 4-2-5 look, has been hard on Ellerbe at times this spring pushing him to learn his keys and to be in the right places at the right times, knowing that he's going to be on the field a lot come fall Saturdays.
"Coach Vic, he's a real good coach. I mean, then again, he could be hard on you. It's not the fact that he's yelling at you. He just wants you understand. He's trying to help us (become) better players. Take us to the next level. That's his goal," said Ellerbe of his position coach.
Ellerbe, a former running back and safety at Anson County High School in Wadesboro (N.C.) who also played basketball for the Bearcats, credits those experiences for helping him gain the necessary athleticism it takes to play the versatile 'Ram' spot.
"I want to say acceleration, because with me playing (running back and safety) in a linebackers stance, it helps me slide side to side. And then again, a lot of it has to do with basketball. That's helping me a lot too," he said.
Another thing helping Ellerbe as he battles for a starting job this spring is the fact that he's gotten a year under his belt in the 4-2-5 and is much more aware of what's going on at his position.
"It's still the same kind of scheme from last year. Last year we didn't throw in the 'money' package, but this year we're actually a step ahead of it because last year we didn't have a lot of people (with experience)," he said. "This year we have just the right amount of people."
Ellerbe has been working with a bunch of youngsters in the UNC secondary this spring, including cornerbacks Alex Dixon and Malik Simmons, along with safeties Dominique Green and Jeff Battle, who are getting their first taste of life in the two-deep rotation defensively at the college level.
The Tar Heels are banged up in the secondary this spring, and are hopeful to have regulars including Jabari Price, Sam Smiley, Darien Rankin, and T.J. Jiles back at full strength in time for training camp come August.
But in the meanwhile, Ellerbe has enjoyed working with all those young guys in practices and scrimmages this spring, helping them get more familiar with the defense.
"I'm happy for these young guys. Because they're getting in the playbook and everything, and they're excited just like I am, and I'm happy for them," he said.
Jackson is one of those young guys---a player that redshirted a season ago as he struggled at times gaining a grasp of what his role is supposed to be. But he's been progressively coming along and appears to have made a minor breakthrough this spring.
In last Friday's open scrimmage in Kenan Stadium, Jackson intercepted true freshman Mitch Trubisky, one of several big plays he's made over the past few weeks.
"Jo-Jo actually has come a long way," Ellerbe told us. "This year he's a redshirt freshman. He had problems doing some of the smaller things, but as you can see this year, he actually came a long way and stepped up on that. I guess he's relaxing and playing ball. That's part of the game, basically."
From an individual standpoint, Ellerbe said that he's been really focusing on getting stronger and quicker as well as getting more familiar with the defensive playbook.
"I knew I had to get in the weight room, you know. I had to get faster, so I was working on a lot of footwork drills. Man-to-man technique, that was one of my weaknesses," he said. "Getting in there and watching film with the young guys, letting them know what to do, what's expected of them on that play and stuff like that (was helpful)."
Of course Ellerbe would like to put up huge statistics this coming season as he steps into a starting role, but mainly he wants to just pitch in.
On the whole, Ellerbe believes with the extra experience the UNC defenders have after last season---as well as an extra year of familiarity with what the coaches want them to do---will result in a dramatic improvement for the Tar Heels on that side of the ball this coming year.
"My goal this year, I can't really say, but I (want to) have really big numbers. But I just want to play it by ear. Whatever God lays on my hand. I just want to help the defense out, basically," he said.
"This year, I actually think we'll be a lot better than we were last year. Like I said before, this is the same scheme and most of us are pretty much familiar with the playbook."