Donte Paige-Moss went into his sophomore season a year ago expecting to play a lot in North Carolina's defensive end rotation, but playing behind such talents as Robert Quinn and Michael McAdoo, he knew realistically going into training camp that he wouldn't be on the field all the time.
But the departures of Quinn and McAdoo from the Tar Heel roster just before the season opener against LSU put the former five-star Paige-Moss, originally out of Jones County in the Southeastern part of North Carolina, squarely in the spotlight.
Instead of cowering away from the opportunity to step up to a major role along the UNC defensive line, Paige-Moss flourished.
He produced 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks--- which each ranked second on the team behind only All-ACC standout Quinton Coples---to go along with 49 tackles, which tied for seventh on the team.
"Nobody ever would have thought---even our own fans---wouldn't have thought we would have won as many games as we did with the people that we lost," said Paige-Moss about last season.
Coming off Carolina's third straight 8-5 season---which many considered an overachievement given all the personnel losses---Paige-Moss says that he and his teammates have a new awareness of what it takes to win and are more focused than ever on getting better this offseason to capitalize on last year's momentum.
"Everybody is motivated. Before we would come in with kind of like a black smog over our head as far as 'What are we going to do to win?'"
"But as far as what we did with the little that we had made everybody know that it doesn't matter about the talent or experience that you have. If you're motivated and you're willing to work with everybody, that the sky is the limit to what you can do," Paige-Moss said.
"Just as far as the hype we came in with this season, the people who are doubting us this season, the people that doubted us last year, we still have it on our mind. We felt like the bowl game that we won wasn't a stopping point. We felt that it was basically a launching pad to where we want to go, and just the minimum success that we show this program that we can have in football."
"We're just going to try to turn the curve as far as everybody saying this is a basketball school, and kind of turn this thing up in the football field area," Paige-Moss added.
"You better get your popcorn ready, because it's going to be a show."
One of the big transitions for Paige-Moss and all of his Tar Heel defensive line mates this spring is the transition to new position coach Joe Robinson, who follows three other individuals who have held the UNC defensive line job since the start of the 2010 season.
"It's definitely going good (with Coach Robinson)," said Paige-Moss. "You know he's definitely the kind of guy (we like)---joking, relaxed, laid back---he's definitely the kind of guy we like to have in the defensive meeting room."
"Everything is going well. Everybody has good chemistry, and everything is just going to be a sight to see this year coming up."
"Yeah (it feels good to have some stability), because I feel like he (Robinson) is going to be here for a while, and kudos to Coach Davis, because he never just goes out and just gets anybody," Paige-Moss continued.
"He always wants to get somebody who he feels like he would fit the personality of the position group, because he is a player's coach. And he always wants to have what we feel like would be best for us."
While the transition to Coach Robinson seems to be going smoothly, Paige-Moss didn't hide his strong feelings for his former position coach, and the man who played perhaps the single-biggest role in getting him to Chapel Hill---John Blake.
"It's going good with Coach Robinson, but you know, what's guided us through these situations are the motivational keys that Coach Blake left us with, because he wasn't necessarily just a coach to us. He wasn't just a coach. He was a mentor. He was a teacher, he was a preacher to us," said Paige-Moss.
"That's why anybody who ever interacted with him (Blake) as a player is to close to him."
"Not that he (Blake) would do things that he shouldn't do, but because he would do things that coaches from other schools wouldn't do."
"Like during the recruiting process, as far as all the other schools, the Floridas, the Auburns, everybody else, they were talking about how they wanted me to come out and play, but I knew eventually any school I went to I would play or they wouldn't recruit me."
"But as far as what Coach Blake would say to me as far as how football would be the least of his worries when he wanted to talk to me," Paige-Moss added.
"He wanted to talk about how I am doing in school. He wanted to talk about how my mother is doing. He wanted to talk about what he wanted out of me as a man as far as more than a football player."
"With what he left us, he's always in our hearts," he added. "The techniques that he (Blake) taught is what everybody else is still teaching us, so even though he's gone, he's still here."
Paige-Moss entered this spring with an entirely new reputation---or 'street cred' as they call it in the rap industry---as result of a single play during the Music City Bowl.
Midway through the third quarter of Carolina's overtime victory over Tennessee, with UNC holding a precarious 17-14 advantage, Paige-Moss lost his helmet while pass rushing but nonetheless made a relentless effort to get to Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray.
Diving straight at Bray in an effort to sack him in a crowded Tennessee pocket, Paige-Moss collided directly into the oncoming helmet of Coples---temporarily knocking Paige-Moss senseless and creating a replay that has gotten thousands upon thousands of views online.
Although it was one of those plays that can make even the toughest of football fans or former players cringe, it's also the type of thing that can help make a reputation if you live through it.
"Oh yeah (I still hear about that play) as far as everybody tells me how they watched it on You Tube, and I think about it every day as far as how most people, that would probably be their last play," Paige-Moss said.
"But like I say all the time---it was through God's mercy, and I feel like the fact that he wanted me to be a witness to millions that I look at this as basically my second life."
"Most people say you only get one (life), but the fact that I felt like I got two motivates me, and only pushes me at a higher level of working out and actually playing on the field and doing what I love to do," he added.
While the helmet incident in the bowl game might have helped bring Paige-Moss closer to God and helped him be more of a witness of his faith, it also clearly helped him from the standpoint of showing just how tough a nut he is to crack.
There's little doubt that most of not all National Football League franchises have seen the infamous helmet play, and if Paige-Moss builds on his 2010 season with a breakthough 2011 season, he may very well find himself getting opportunities to leave Chapel Hill after his junior season.
"I feel like that right there (the helmet play) did a lot for me as far as showing toughness, because you know how most people probably would have (handled it)," he said.
"Most people told me, 'After the helmet would have came off I probably would've stopped.' But that was the least of my worries, to stop playing."
"I felt that if anything happens to me (on the field in a game), that's how I want to go out, doing what I love," he added.
Paige-Moss admits that the Tar Heels still have a bit of a chip on their shoulder given everything that happened last year and the lost opportunity of what could have been a magical season, but all he and his teammates can do now is look forward and build.
"Like I've said before, (it's) us against the world," he said.
"You know, when everybody else is against you it doesn't matter. As long as you have your brother beside you, you can do whatever you want. And that is what is motivating us going into this year."
"It doesn't matter if we have the No. 1 this and that, and the No. 1 this and that," he added. "As long as you and the brother beside you are willing to give a 110 (percent), you can get whatever you want out of the situation."
Now that Coples is moving back to the outside to accompany Paige-Moss as the other starting defensive end for the Tar Heels, UNC is going to have an impressive front four that includes three multi-year starters (Coples, Paige-Moss, and Tydreke Powell), an early-impact JUCO in Sylvester Williams that is already making his presence felt in spring practice, and multiple young players looking to emerge.
"Really I feel like I've said it before, (but I think) we're going to be the number one D-end (unit) in the country," said Paige-Moss of himself and Coples, along with top backups Tim Jackson and Kareem Martin.
"Not only because I feel like we're the best athletically, but I feel like with the help that we're going to get from the inside as far as Tydreke Powell, Sylvester Williams, Jared McAdoo, I just feel like with that assisting us, that I feel like any time they get a double team, that we (the defensive ends) get a one-on-one with somebody, that is just going to be hell to pay," Paige-Moss said.
He admits that this spring season is a little bit easier knowing that he's the No. 1 guy at his position and doesn't have to try to battle quite so hard just to stay in the two-deep rotation at defensive end.
"It's definitely relaxing. It's not like I'm just going out there and I'm fighting for a spot," Paige-Moss said.
He admits its a little weird calling other players young guys since it seems like he just arrived at North Carolina himself, but now that Paige-Moss is a returning starter and one of the team's more dynamic players, he knows that it's about more than just making plays now.
"You know, it's kind of crazy finding myself saying 'youngster,' because it just seems like the other day I was the youngster, but the way time flies you have to live with it, and you just have to give what you get out of it," he said.
"Just to be in the situation that we are in now as far as me and Coples being the leaders and, you know, actually having the roles that we have in stone---we're guiding the youngsters---it's really good."