After redshirting his first autumn in Chapel Hill a year ago, safety Darien Rankin appears to have taken his opportunity under the new coaching regime of Larry Fedora and run with it over the past several months.
Coming off an excellent spring season and a good summer of quality work in the weight room, where he's added significant muscle mass, Rankin finds himself running with the starters at free safety as the Tar Heels work through the first week of training camp.
"I gained a lot of weight. I'm probably about 196, 197 (pounds) right now. But they put a lot of weight on me (during the offseason)," Rankin said to Tar Heel Illustrated over the weekend.
"The defense, we're getting on it, and opportunities are there, so I'm ready for it."
Rankin didn't see the field last fall as veterans Matt Merletti, Brian Gupton, and Gene Robinson, along with returning starting strong safety Tre Boston, earned most of the playing time at the safety spots.
But with Merletti and Gupton now gone, and Robinson moving to the 'Ram' position for his senior year, Rankin finds himself battling it out with multiple fellow youngsters, including fellow redshirt freshman Sam Smiley, for the No. 1 spot at free safety.
"I've gotten the opportunity (to compete for a starting job) from the coach (secondary coach/defensive coordinator Dan Disch), and I just want to take advantage of that right now," Rankin said. "I'm ready to unleash my talent and see what I've got to bring to the collegiate level. I'm just ready for the season to start."
A dynamic athlete who was one of the sleepers of UNC's 2011 signing class, Rankin helped lead Salisbury (N.C.) High School to an NCHSAA Class 2-A state championship on the gridiron his senior season, and then in the spring of his senior year he qualified for the state championship track meet in multiple events, including the triple jump and high jump.
Last fall he got plenty of work on the scout team helping prep UNC's offense for each upcoming game, but with the spring season and the implementation of the 4-2-5 defense under the new coaching staff came a chance to quickly make his way up the depth chart.
"I think I've transitioned good, because the safeties, we're not 'sit back' safeties. We're coming up to the run, guarding each and every receiver and tight end," Rankin said. "I think I'm bringing the role of speed and coverage. I think I be a good asset to it (the defense)."
While players like Robinson and other veterans like Boston Jabari Price, Terry Shankle, and Tim Scott all bring some playing and starting experience to the Tar Heel secondary this fall, Rankin believes he's in a position to become a leader within this unit.
And training camp is no better place to start building your place as a leader on a football team.
"There's a couple of upperclassmen, but we're really young. So they're going to push us to do even more. But I think I can somewhat become a leader."