North Carolina starts football practice on Friday. Between now and then, I'm providing some thoughts on where the Tar Heels stand at every position entering preseason practice.
Now we'll look at the …
Who's gone: Nobody
Who's back: WLB Travis Hughes (76 tackles, 5.5 for loss); WLB Joe Jackson; MLB Dan Mastromatteo (3 tackles); WLB Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles, 5.5 for loss); MLB Nathan Staub (19 tackles, 2 for loss)
Newcomers: Malik Carney; Cayson Collins; Tyrell Tomlin
By class: One senior, one junior, three sophomores, three freshmen
Average recruiting rank (Rivals.com): 3.29 stars
Depth chart entering practice
Hughes (6-2, 220, Sr.)
Schoettmer (6-1, 230, Jr.**)
Jackson (6-2, 210, Soph.^)
Staub (6-2, 235, Soph.) OR
Mastromatteo (6-2, 235, Soph.)
^ – indicates player has redshirted
** – indicates player walked onto the team (though could be on scholarship now). Status does not count in position's average recruiting ranking.
What to like: Schoettmer and Hughes both ranked among the top five on the team in tackles last season, and both are back. So some significant production is returning here, and there seems to be some good young talent. Tomlin, the incoming freshman, arrives as a four-star recruit, and he should compete for early playing time. The linebacker position – though technically there are only two linebackers in the 4-2-5 defense that UNC employs – is the only position segment on defense that didn't lose a major contributor from last season.
What to question: Hughes has had his share of off-the-field problems, and relatively minor scrapes with the law. He hasn't shown a consistent ability to avoid trouble and that, above all, could be his greatest challenge entering the season. If he manages to stay out of trouble, he could be in for a statistically-impressive season. If you believe the post-spring depth chart then middle linebacker is a question mark, with Staub and Mastromatteo – two relatively unproven players – competing there for the starting spot. But Schoettmer, who started most of last season at middle linebacker, missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. If he's healthy, he should reclaim his place.
Preseason storylines: The competition at middle linebacker, if you can call it that, is the only real unknown here. Assuming Schoettmer is fully healed from his shoulder surgery, he'll reclaim his role as the starter at middle linebacker. If he hasn't recovered, though, or if he's still working his way back, it could develop into a real competition.