For rising junior defensive tackle Shawn Underwood, there's no time like the present time to improve and make his case as the heir apparent to Sylvester Williams.
Williams was in Chapel Hill Tuesday for UNC's annual Pro Day, and the big defensive tackle is looking at a possible late first round selection in next month's NFL Draft.
Now Underwood, who has contributed as one of Williams' primary backups at the 'nose' tackle position for Carolina the past two seasons, is ready to become the man himself over his final two years in Chapel Hill, emerging out of Williams shadow as UNC's next great interior defender.
"It's great, actually (getting back into spring practice)," Underwood told Tar Heel Illustrated in a recent interview. "The last couple of weeks we've been running around, trying to get ready for these practices and just getting back into things. It's great."
"It's pressure that I have to take on (replacing Williams), but I'm ready to take on the challenge," he added.
Underwood and the other UNC defensive linemen are in a little bit of a transition period this spring adjusting to the teachings of new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore.
What Gilmore is showing them is in line with what they were already learning under his predecessor Deke Adams, but there's some added wisdom thrown in on the fundamentals of the position itself thanks to the nearly 30-year coaching veteran.
"I'm trying to make the most of my opportunity. I'm taking the coaching from Coach Gilmore, and doing the best as I can on the field," Underwood said.
"He's really impressive," the veteran tackle added about Gilmore. "You can go and talk to him at any time. Everyone has connected with him very well so far."
Underwood admitted to us that he's got a more aggressive role in the 4-2-5 scheme as opposed to the base 4-3 scheme that he was initially recruited to Carolina to play in.
"First of all, there are a lot more stunting in this (the 4-2-5) defense," he said. "First we were just like a run-stopping defense---you were just trying to maintain your gap---but now we're stunting a lot more trying to get through a gap and get to the quarterback."
The third-year defender is excited about the opportunity to get after the quarterback a little bit, and he's hopeful that he can serve a dual purpose applying pressure on passing downs while also using his strength, quickness, and low center of gravity to hold down the line of scrimmage against the run.
"I think my pass rushing is definitely one of the things that I can bring to the table, and also my running, stopping gaps," he said.
UNC has one incoming true freshman, Greg Webb, entering the mix come summertime, but for right now the Tar Heels are rotating in a group of nose tackles with quite a bit of practice time at UNC and game experience under their belts.
"As of right now, we have myself, and they switched Ethan Farmer to 'nose', so he's in there getting reps with the second group. And Devonte Brown is also in there competing with us also, so it's going well," Underwood said.
On the whole the Tar Heel defensive line should be, at least on paper, one of the strengths of the 2013 team heading into training camp given the veteran presence of Underwood, Farmer, and Brown, as well as fellow defensive tackle Tim Jackson and defensive end Kareem Martin, a pair of rising seniors who have played heavily throughout each of the previous three seasons when healthy.
"Ethan Farmer has impressed me (so far this spring)," Underwood told us. "Tim Jackson moving to the 'three-technique' has really impressed me. And also Kareem (Martin) up front (at defensive end)."
He, along with the other older guys in that defensive huddle, are actively embracing the role as leaders to motivate this entire unit to make key improvements while bringing along the younger players who will undoubtedly have to step up and produce if this team is to have a chance to compete for the ACC Coastal Division title again.
"Yeah, since I'm getting older, a lot of the guys look up to me. So it's easier than I thought it was going to be (being a leader on the team), because most of my teammates look up to me. But I'm glad to take on that role also," Underwood said.
"It (this spring season) is very important," he continued. "We need to get our defense, we need to know every possible scheme that we have in the playbook, so when we go into the summer, we get everything."