CHAPEL HILL Even with the departures of Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick, the two best players on North Carolinas defense a season ago, coach Larry Fedora entered the preseason with optimism that his defense would improve on its sometimes suspect play in 2012.
Since the start of the preseason, though, the defense has been decimated by injuries. Bandit Shakeel Rashad and safety Sam Smiley, two potential starters, will miss the season because of injuries. During practices in the middle of preseason camp, it wasnt uncommon for the defense to practice without several players nursing ailments.
Even so, Fedora has remained confident that improvement is a given.
Because they know what to do, he said of the defense, which struggled last season in the first year of a new 4-2-5 scheme. (The unknown) part of it is gone. So its now you know what to do and you know whats expected. Does that mean that youre not going to give up any plays? No. Too many good football players out there, too many good offenses out there.
Linebacker might best illustrate the kind of preseason it has been for UNCs defense. Weeks ago, the Tar Heels had plenty of depth there. During the preseason, it became so scarce that UNC worked Jack Tabb, a tight end, at linebacker.
Depths still an issue for us, Fedora said.
Dukes Deaver, Brown glad to be working again
DURHAM Duke has two projected starters who havent played in a game since 2011: tight end Braxton Deaver and linebacker Kelby Brown.
Deaver, a redshirt junior, has the size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) the Blue Devils staff wants in a tight end. He played in all 12 games during his redshirt freshman year and earned one start, against Miami in Week 9. For the year, he caught eight passes for 107 yards and also contributed on special teams.
Deaver, who was projected to start last year, missed the season while recovering from a broken kneecap. He was able to go full speed in the spring.
The competition, I live and die by it, so being able to get back out on the field will be a privilege, and Im excited about it, he said. Im so anxious, you have no idea.
Deaver describes himself as a hybrid tight end, one who can block on the line and in space as well as catch passes. Quarterback Anthony Boone, Deavers roommate, called him the best tight end in the ACC at media day last month.
Deaver did say he grew by leaps and bounds last season, despite not playing.
I was really able to mentally get everything down so that I can play fast, he said. I dont have to think about what Im going to do. I can say bang, I know what Im doing, lets play and react.
Brown, meanwhile, was a two-year starter before he missed 2012 while recovering from a torn ACL. In 19 total games (17 starts), he has recorded 128 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and three pass break-ups and sacks apiece. Because of his experience, he felt familiar with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles schemes.
It was tough at first, but I had to learn how to lead as a nonstarter, for the first time since Ive been here, and I had to learn how to encourage guys, he said. Going from maybe getting down on guys a lot to realizing that, Im on the sideline, all they want to hear from me is uplifting encouragement. Im going to be able to bring that into a leadership role as a starter if I win the job this year.
Deaver and Brown have preformed well enough in camp to solidify their starting spots. Now, for the first time in nearly two years, theyre set to take the field.