Throughout North Carolina's spring season this March and April, rising sophomore outside linebacker Darius Lipford has been battling for a chance to start for the Tar Heels in 2011.
"It's been really exciting getting out and competing with the guys. We've got an open spot at linebacker and I've been competing really hard," Lipford said.
After seeing action in 11 games last fall as a true freshman, Lipford now finds himself in position to replace four-year starter Bruce Carter as Carolina's first-team player at the strong-side or 'Sam' linebacker post.
"I'm playing predominantly on the strong side," Lipford said. "I played 'strong' and 'weak' last year---wherever we needed someone depending on injuries. And I'm playing a little bit of 'nickel' and 'Mike.' That's a little bit of a change, but the transition is going well."
"It's real exciting. That's what I came here for was to showcase my talents and to help the defense as much as I can," Lipford added about the chance to start this coming fall.
The valuable year that he got last fall playing behind Carter and Quan Sturdivant and getting to learn from them and the other UNC linebackers was very helpful as Lipford worked out with the Tar Heels this spring.
"I'd say that (playing as a freshman) helped me out a lot with my confidence," he said.
"I think it was a dramatic difference in seeing other guys that haven't played. I'm a little more comfortable on the field with some of the upperclassmen. I see that it's really beneficial."
"I can see myself being a big contributor the more I learn from now until the season starts, and just learning from Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown, picking up things from them and things I learned from Bruce and Quan. I can see it being a very good season," he added.
While the year of experience on the field was clearly important for Lipford, just being in the UNC program as a whole over the past several months has been perhaps his biggest area of growth.
He's learned the plays. He's learned how to study film.
And he's learned how fast he's going to have to play if he's going to be an impact player at this level.
"I'd say it's a dramatic change for me this spring from coming in last time in the summer and trying to learn the plays. Now I've got it down pat and I can play and run around a lot more and make a lot more plays," he said. "I'd say now more than at the beginning, whenever I first got here, now I've really gotten a good grasp on the defense."
"I can just tell the difference after the experiences of last year. It's changed a lot (my habits in the film room)," Lipford continued. "I'm more focused on reading the keys in film and kind of going over the play in my head."
Lipford says he has learned how to focus on himself and watching the things he needs to key on while he's watching game tape instead of just watching the whole play, as one would as a spectator or viewing a game on television.
It takes a certain keen eye and level of focus to see the game in such a way, but Lipford believes he's getting there.
"When I first got here it seemed like I was just looking at the play and trying to pick up little hints as to what was going on, but I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking at and what exactly I was trying to see the defense doing," he said.
"But now seeing the different shifts in our (defensive) coverages and different alignments on the offense, it's a lot easier to follow the film."
Lipford credits linebackers coach Art Kaufman for helping bring himself, fellow 2010 linebacker freshman P.J. Clyburn, and all the other Tar Heel linebackers up to speed.
"Coach Kaufman told us, the guys that we had coming in from last year at linebacker and stuff, we have a lot more football knowledge than what Bruce and Quan had whenever they came in," he said. "I see that's a good help with me knowing what's going on, on defense and reading the keys to the fullback, the guard, and the quarterback."
Along with developing mentally, Lipford also says he's gotten considerably stronger since he arrived in Chapel Hill last summer, which has helped him take on opposing offensive blockers much better.
"I can tell the world of difference strength-wise," he said.
"Coming in it was hard for me to get off of blocks with the 'slot' (receiver). I wasn't used to smaller guys being able to maintain blocks on me and stuff."
"But now it's moving along pretty well. I'm taking on linemen a lot better and I've gotten a lot stronger. The weights helped."
Lipford's biggest goal during the spring season this year individually was to find a way to bring a steady level of performance each and every day at practice.
"Consistency---that's a really big thing. Even coming in last season, the big things with me were having good, consistent practices over and over," he said.
Lipford admitted that he started out slowly with a rough first practice back in mid-March.
"I'd say over the spring, my first practice, that was probably my worst practice, and it kind of got me a little bit down and I talked to Coach (Kaufman)."
"But since then I've had a lot of really good practices and been making a lot of plays and consistently making good reads," Lipford added.
Lipford picked it up over the last several workouts of the spring to a point where right now he's clearly the No. 1 guy at the strong-side linebacker spot.
Now the question is will he keep it?
With several talented young freshmen linebackers coming in, Lipford will have to train hard this summer and not lose a step in order to make sure he's still at the top of the depth chart when the Tar Heels take the field for its season opener in September.