North Carolina senior linebacker Ebele Okakpu is no stranger to the field---having played in most all of UNC's games over the past three seasons when he wasn't injured---but it wasn't until this past spring that he was in position to start.
The Tar Heels had been set with its first-team outside linebackers for three years with Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, as Okakpu served as one of the key backups to those two standpoints.
But with Carter and Sturdivant's departure after the 2010 season came opportunity, and Okakpu has made the most of that opportunity by claiming the first-team spot at the strong-side or 'Sam' linebacker position heading into Saturday's season opener against James Madison.
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"(Practice is) going pretty well. It's what I expected basically---starting, you know," Okakpu said to Tar Heel Illustrated recently. "It's going pretty good. I'm pretty excited."
Okakpu admitted that its hard for him to believe that he's a senior, just a few days from the start of his final collegiate season.
"Yeah, it's been the fastest four years of my life, man. It went by pretty fast," he said. "I can remember the first day I stepped out here on the field."
The excitement of Saturday night's opener and the season in general is magnified for Okakpu knowing that he's going to be a vital cog in the North Carolina defense.
After three years, he's finally getting a chance to be a starter.
"I'm excited about it. I've been waiting for a while now to be that guy (a starter), but I'm just really excited," he said.
Aside of running with the 'ones' in practice, Okakpu says that not much was different about this year's training camp with Everett Withers in charge instead of the departed Butch Davis.
"I guess being in the starting role has made it a little different for me, but as far as what we were doing out there, it's been basically the same. It's the same drills, the same stuff," he said.
Okakpu had spent much of his previous time at UNC playing the middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker positions, but this spring he got acclimated to the strong side and began to flourish.
"This is really my first year playing the 'Sam.' I was used to playing the 'Will,' the other outside 'backer," he said. "There's some things I've got to learn---technique things and eye (seeing) things."
As he competed for the starting job at the 'Sam' position against Darius Lipford and some of the incoming UNC linebackers this spring and summer, Okakpu worked hard on the little things---staying focused on correcting wrongs that he's made in the past.
"I was really trying to focus on mental errors and getting rid of them, making sure I kept my pads low and things like that," he said.
Part of Okakpu's journey to becoming a starter was making sure he was taking care of business off the field as well.
"Basically I just had to get my head on straight, keep out of trouble, things like that, and do it in the classroom was the main thing, you know. Staying off academic probation and things like that," he said.
It has greatly aided Okakpu's development both in the spring and this summer throughout practice to have a pair of teammates in Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick that he's played with for the past several seasons.
It will be Okakpu, Reddick, and Brown taking the field with the starting defense as UNC's starting linebackers Saturday afternoon against the Dukes.
"I feel like us being together for the past three or four years will really help us out there on the field," Okakpu said. "We're all good friends off the field also, so I feel like that will really help our chemistry out there, being able to communicate, get the right calls, things like that."
Okakpu shouldn't be all that nervous Saturday given all the experience he's attained over three prior seasons. He came in and saw immediate action as a true freshman back in 2008, and since that time he's been a primary linebacker reserve while playing on multiple special teams.
"I feel like it (having experience) helps a lot with getting the jitters out. That's the main thing. If you're nervous, you're not going to play well. Once you get those butterflies out, I feel it will really help me out," he said.
One of the things that Okakpu has been trying to do over the past month is pass along some of the knowledge he's attained over the last three years and pass it along to Carolina's freshmen linebackers---a group that has impressed him so far.
"Some of those guys (the rookie linebackers), they're a lot farther along than we were when we were freshmen. We're just keeping them going," he said. "Every freshman wants to get on the field, but just trying to keep their confidence level up, not letting them fall back thinking that the reason they're not playing is because of their ability. Rather, it's seniority."
Okakpu was pleased with the way the Tar Heel players persevered this summer after the stunning news of Coach Davis's dismissal, and he's looking forward to playing with a team that's eager to get started.
"I think we've come really far, especially with some of these trials we've been through, losing our coach and things like that. But I feel like we've come along a lot," he said.
"Coach Withers is doing a great job with us, you know. He's like a player's coach. Everyone loves him."
"I feel like we're ready for the season. We're pumped," Okakpu concluded.