Lipford settles in at ‘Mike

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Heading into his senior season at North Carolina, Darius Lipford is again adjusting to a new position.
Initially a 'Sam' (strong-side) linebacker in UNC's 4-3 defense under former head coaches Butch Davis and Everett Withers, Lipford saw action in 24 games and made five starts in 2010 and 2011 before tearing the ACL in his left knee in Carolina's blowout loss to Missouri in the 2011 Independence Bowl in Shreveport.
As everyone knows, a lot happened by the time Lipford returned to action for the Tar Heels in the spring of 2013.
By that time, of course, Larry Fedora had been lured to Chapel Hill as the program's new head coach, and Lipford found himself needing to learn a new position in the 4-2-5 scheme.
His new role came in the form of the 'Bandit,' a position similar to his old 'Sam' linebacker job, but different in multiple ways as well.
Lipford contributed 20 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks this past fall, but now the UNC coaches are looking to even more ways to get him involved.
With Norkeithus Otis firmly entrenched as the starter at 'Bandit,' but wanting to get Lipford's athleticism, explosiveness and defensive know-how onto the field, the Tar Heel coaches are converting him to 'Mike', or middle linebacker, this spring.
"I feel like it's been a really good transition for me. I'm excited at a new position, playing 'Mike,' stepping more into a leader's role this season, helping our defensive guys kind of make a name for ourselves in spring ball. I'm really excited for what we're going to do this year," said Lipford in a recent interview with Tar Heel Illustrated.
"It (playing 'Mike' LB) is a pretty good combination of run and pass and different techniques, whether it be pass or run. And I feel like it's really going to help me, because I'm going to know what everyone else on the defense has to do. So it will be easier for me to get people lined up, and where to assign everyone."
Having played multiple linebacker positions and the 'Bandit' over the course of 35 games in his UNC career so far, Lipford had no reservations about moving over to 'Mike,' where the Tar Heels have had a bit of an identity crisis ever since four-year starter Kevin Reddick left after the 2012 season.
"I feel with all the positions I've played---all the other linebacker positions and the 'Bandit'---all those positions have prepared me for (playing) 'Mike," Lipford replied.
UNC employed multiple 'Mike' linebackers in 2013, including redshirt freshmen Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo, as well as former walk-ons who earned scholarships such as Jeff Schoettmer and Tommy Heffernan.
And while UNC's defensive play improved dramatically as the season went on, the Tar Heels were still looking to group their best players together on the field at once.
With a potential linebacker/Bandit rotation of three senior starters---Lipford, Otis, and the newly-reinstated Travis Hughes at 'Will' (weak-side) linebacker---the Tar Heels could definitely make some noise on the defensive side of the ball in 2014.
"The transition has been pretty good. I've got some pretty good sideline-to-sideline abilities, and the coaches saw that. They believe I'm a natural at the position. I have natural instincts. And the more I work on my fundamentals, the better I can get at it," Lipford said.
Lipford has been getting considerable work this spring with the first-team defense at the 'Mike' linebacker, with Staub and Mastromatteo serving as his primary backups.
But even though he might be playing ahead of him, Lipford has taken the opportunity to learn from Staub over the past several months about his responsibilities at the 'Mike.'
"Staub has really been helping me with the transition, just the calls and knowing what calls to make, whether to check off the formations, and working on my footwork and things," Lipford said of his teammate. "He knows I haven't really been used to the position for very long, but it's going good I feel like he and I will really compliment each other well throughout the season."
Lipford would have graduated out of the UNC program by now had he not injured his knee a couple years ago, but now he knows he's got to step up as a leader and be a role model among the linebackers such as his classmate, Ethan Farmer, is along the defensive line.
"Me and Ethan Farmer, we came in with Tim (Jackson) and Kareem (Martin in the Class of 2010). And I had my setback (knee injury) and he (Farmer) redshirted (the 2010 season)," Lipford said. "So now we're stepping into that leader role, and guys are looking to us to set the tone in practice. So we just have to be wide open and just lead by example and not just talk the talk. We have walk the walk. I feel like we'll do pretty good leading the guys, and I'm just excited."
Having been through what he's been through in terms of a major injury that for a while jeopardized his football career, Lipford knows he's fortunate just to be on the field.
And he doesn't forget that each day the Tar Heels go out for a practice session.
"Being out of the knee brace and being able to run wide open and change direction, without an extra five pounds on one leg, has been way different, and I'm just excited to see what I can do this year," he told us.
"It's great. I couldn't be happier. I know I'll contribute this year, however I can for the team. Whatever the team's best interests (are), I'm all down for it."
Learning the defense and adjusting to the nuances of his new position are specific focuses for Lipford this spring, as those nuances include a lot more memorization and basic information than before.
"A lot of focus for me (this spring) would be reading my keys," he said. "You know, there's a lot more reads at 'Mike' than there was at 'Bandit.' Instead of keying one or two players, I have to transition my eyes whether anyone crosses my face or not. And there's a lot more technical things, but it's pretty simple at the same time. You just have to be confident in what you're doing."
From a weight standpoint Lipford has blossomed into a well-developed man at approximately 260 pounds. That might be a little big for some at the middle linebacker post, but Lipford has shown he can run well enough to play there.
Lipford isn't looking to gain or lose weight this spring as much as maintain his current weight and learn how to properly play at that weight.
"Weight-wise, I've put on a pretty good amount. I've been 260 (pounds) for about two and a half weeks, pretty steady at 255 to 260. So hopefully I'll just get used to running at that weight, and play there," he said.
While Lipford is naturally happy to be healthy, a rising senior and currently in the starting lineup for the Tar Heels, the thing that has him most excited this spring is the way the UNC defense as a whole is coming together.
For a beleaguered 2013 Tar Heel defense that was kicked around for much of the early part of the season, there's a renewed confidence and excitement given the players they have returning, along with some of the exciting young players ready to make their marks.
For Lipford, who has had a long, strange journey to get to this point, he's just happy to see the UNC defense improving substantially just as his Tar Heel career is about to come to an end.
He remembers the incredible defensive talent that was on the UNC campus when he arrived back in the summer of 2010, and he believes the Tar Heels are closer to that now than at any time in the past four years.
"I'm very excited with our defense, actually. This is the best I've seen the guys look in a few years. We have the depth that we haven't had the last couple of seasons, and I feel like we're going to be able to compliment our offense very well this year," he said.