Without Eric Ebron going at full strength at the tight end position for the Tar Heels this spring, rising junior Jack Tabb found himself in a situation where he was going to get as many reps in practice as he could handle.
Coming off a sophomore season in which he made 12 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown, Tabb spent this year's entire spring season running with the first team offense.
As much, or perhaps more, as he had his hand to the ground as a more traditional tight end, Tabb was spread out running wide receiver-type pass routes.
"It's been good (this spring)," Tabb said in an exclusive interview with Tar Heel Illustrated. "It's definitely a little bit smoother than last year since we know what we're doing. But it's been going real well. I feel like I'm making some strides to improve myself."
Tabb was initially recruited to Chapel Hill to play a blocking tight end that would occasionally make catches, but in the spread offense he's looked upon to create mismatches, get in space, and make plays as much as make blocks.
It could have been a tough transition for some, but for Tabb, who played all over the field at Red Bank Catholic High in New Jersey, was ready for the adjustment to being more of a pass catcher and a downfield threat than merely another guy along the line of scrimmage.
"Luckily, I played all over the field in high school. So I have experience outside and actually in the backfield," he said. "Me getting moved around this offense in the backfield and at wideout, I like it a lot. I'm pretty athletic, so I can get the job done."
Playing in the first team unit this spring, Tabb was looked upon quite a bit by starting quarterback Bryn Renner to make things happen in practice. He caught one ball for 12 yards in the Spring Game Saturday, but his role seemed more expansive that that when THI observed offensive segments of practices in March and April.
"I mean, it's great (to be running with the starters)," Tabb told us. "I always love to make some plays. I need to help Bryn out. That's how I feel. I'm a veteran out here. I'm about to be a junior So Bryn looks to me for some leadership when we need a big play or something like that."
Ebron's anticipated summer return, combined with the presence of Tabb and a couple of younger players gives UNC a little depth at the tight end position heading into the 2013 season.
After not signing any true tight ends in the most recent signing class, position coach Walt Bell will be relying heavily on the stable presence of Ebron and Tabb, as well as a new addition to the position.
"(This spring at tight end) there's been (walk-on) Eric Albright and (redshirt freshman) Terrance Knox. And actually Mark McNeill has come over to the tight end room so he can learn a little bit of some of that too. And those boys have been doing a great job, just following and learning."
McNeill played wide receiver previously for the Tar Heels, but he's been converted to tight end given that he's still running a ton of pass routes in the spread, and he'll bring a little bit of a different element with his length and athleticism.
"I just feel like he (McNeill) will bring more of a finesse element (to our tight ends)," Tabb said. "He used to be a receiver. He's not really sure how to play tight end yet physically-wise. But he's got great hands. He's a great, natural baller."
Tabb was the clear veteran of the group this spring, and he worked hard to help acclimate Albright, Knox, and McNeill to their roles. All three of those players got repetitions in practice with the second and third-team offenses, and took advantage of those chances to get better.
"Both of them (Albright and Knox) are actually still kind of learning, and Mark is brand-new at it, but all three of them are doing a great job," Tabb said.
Coming off a somewhat disappointing 2012 season in which he spent a good chunk of the year injured, Tabb says this spring was a great success for him from the standpoint that he was healthier, more aware of his surroundings and able to do more in practice, as well as from the standpoint that he's a year older and in a better position to be an offensive leader.
"It (this spring) was a lot better. It felt good to just know where I was supposed to go instead of freaking out and having coaches yell at you. It's pretty hectic the first day last year. But this year it was real smooth. Everybody knew what we were doing. So that brings more pressure along the way," he said.
His biggest goal this spring was to improve his conditioning in practice to keep up with the breakneck tempo of Carolina's offensive game speed.
"Really I was working on just getting my body right, making sure I was in the best physical condition I could be to go out here and perform my best. Because I know if my body is right, I know my athleticism can pull through," he said.
As he prepares for training camp over the next few months, Tabb tells us he's going to be focusing on improving his flexibility.
Knowing that he's going to be taking on Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina in August's season opener in Columbia, Tabb wants to be as prepared as possible to block him, so he's going to be lifting plenty of weights as well to build some extra strength.
"Definitely my flexibility. It's going to help me maybe get a little faster. Definitely prevent some injuries, which limited me a little bit last season. So definitely flexibility, getting stronger as always so I can be prepared to block Jadeveon," he said.
Now that he's healthy and has completed a successful, highly-productive spring within the UNC offense, Tabb knows he's in position to see his status in the unit rise exponentially.
While Ebron's return could limit his time on the field a little, there's no question that Tabb will be in the offensive rotation quite a bit on gamedays, and as he did in last year's season opener, when he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass against Elon, he's going to get plenty of opportunities to make plays.
Tabb also stepped up last year at Virginia, catching four balls in the win at Virginia, and he's looking forward to stepping up in 2013 and again making an impact for the Tar Heels as a junior.
"I'm most looking forward to making some plays and make some people happy on Saturdays," he said.