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Heading into this past Saturday's game at Pittsburgh, fifth-year senior defender Terry Shankle had been something of an afterthought on the Tar Heel roster. He had played in five of UNC's nine prior games before going to the Steel City, with just 11 tackles.
And then he literally had the game of his life, contributing two sacks, eight tackles and three tackles for loss to aid UNC's staunch defensive effort for most of its 34-27 triumph over the Panthers at Heinz Field.
"It took a whole team effort, but I think the effort came from it being my last road game. So I had to step it up big. I hadn't played my 'best' game yet until that game at Pittsburgh," Shankle told Tar Heel Illustrated following Wednesday's practice.
Shankle has been a cornerback for multiple years, including high school and most of his time at UNC prior to this season, but now he's finding a niche at the hybrid 'Ram' position, where he's getting to blitz more often while also handling some of the coverage responsibilities that he's so familiar with playing the boundary.
He admits it was a challenge early on adjusting to doing more run support and adjusting to covering a little bit more ground at the 'Ram' position, but now he appears to be settling in well just as the Tar Heels need him to produce down the stretch of his final season.
"It was hard (playing 'Ram' at first), because it's big adjustment playing boundary field corner and playing 'Ram.' There's more run fits and you're dropping into different zones, so it was a big adjustment I had to make, and I'm starting to get more accustomed to doing those types of things," Shankle told us.
"It's hard to a certain extent. We run the same plays, but you switch sides when you're at the 'Ram' from boundary (cornerback). The boundary is on the other side of the field, so being on the field size you've got to know certain zones. Once I picked that it up it got pretty easy."
Shankle had contributed for multiple years as a backup defender and on special teams for UNC, but heading into the twilight of his Tar Heel playing experience, Shankle hadn't exactly lived up to his initial billing as a four-star recruit, Rivals 250 prospect and No. 8 player in North Carolina in the Class of 2009 when he came out of high school.
But Shankle has had plenty of experience with hanging in there, and his performance at Pittsburgh is ultimate proof of his willingness to stick with the program, take the teaching that the UNC coaches gave him at his new position, and to find a way to thrive before it was too late.
Many that play, or attempt to play, college football never have a game even close to the game Shankle had Saturday at Pittsburgh, so even if that turns out to be his crowning moment as a Tar Heel, it was certainly a day he'll remember the rest of his life.
"No, never. Not even in high school," Shankle said with a laugh when asked if he'd ever had a game with multiple sacks. "They (my family and friends are) like, 'I want some more sacks,' and I'm 'Man, sacks are hard to come by.'"
Shankle is one of only a handful of Butch Davis's 2009 class still on the roster as fifth-year seniors.
Guard David Collins and running back A.J. Blue are the only other ones now left since quarterback Bryn Renner is out for the season.
After redshirting in 2009 Shankle was thrust into action as a redshirt freshman in 2010 amidst all the roster upheaval and turmoil, and was making an early impact for the Tar Heels before going down with an ACL injury in the William and Mary game that prematurely ended his season with eight tackles in eight games.
The timing of his injury meant that Shankle was greatly limited for the Tar Heels in 2011, and by the time he came back the season was well underway. He nonetheless found his way back into the rotation, playing in five games and recording five tackles.
After another backup season in 2012, in which Shankle recorded 24 tackles (21 unassisted) five pass breakups, a forced fumble and a huge interception in the win over N.C. State, he moved to the 'Ram' position in time for the 2013 season to help compensate for the loss of previous starter Gene Robinson, while also freeing up room for some of UNC's young corners to play.
"I didn't imagine playing 'Ram,' playing nickel, blitzing, but yeah, I imagined being a key contributor (this season)," Shankle said.
Playing behind Brandon Ellerbe as the top backup at the 'Ram,' Shankle endured UNC's lousy 1-5 start as he adjusted to his new defensive role, and missed some action as he was limited early on.
He tells us that things began to change for the Tar Heels after they were humiliated in the 55-31 loss to East Carolina. That experience fired the team up to figure out a way to salvage something out of this season.
"It started the ECU game. We played a bad, horrible game. Our worst game of the season. South Carolina even didn't score more than 27 (points against us). So we had to step it up, because we were last in defense (in the ACC)," Shankle said. "It gave us a drive to work harder, watch more film and get things right. We had to take it upon ourselves to get better. And I just want to get better."
It especially hit close to home for Shankle and other seniors in the UNC defense such as Tre Boston, Jabari Price, Tim Jackson, and Kareem Martin that they are rapidly coming to the end of their Tar Heel careers, and now is the time to make something of it while they can.
Certainly Martin has made the most of recent weeks as he's emerged into one of the better defensive linemen in the ACC, and if Shankle's play at Pitt were any indication, he's determined to finish out his run at Carolina playing lights-out as well.
"We had to think about do we want to go home?" Shankle said. "We see Duke having their success, so do we want Duke to be the best team in the state, or do we want to be the best team in the state? We have to look at Duke, they're 8-2 right now. So we had to get it going. We're on a four-game win streak right now, so why not go to a bowl game?"
The Duke game on the horizon is definitely on the minds of the Tar Heels---especially given what happened last year in Durham---this week they have to take care of business against Old Dominion in order to gain that sixth win that would make UNC bowl eligible.
"They've got good athletes to be a I-AA school going D-1. They've got good athletes. They'll go four or five wide. Four of their receivers have got 40 or more catches," Shankle said of the visiting Monarchs. "They've got pretty good players, so we've just got to be able to stop them."