North Carolina linebacker Kaimon Rucker doesn’t know where he’ll be lining up in Saturday’s game against Virginia, and he couldn’t be happier.
The 6-foot-1, 260-pound sophomore is one of several players co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is using as a specialist in different personnel packages. It’s a luxury the Tar Heels didn’t have much of in Bateman’s previous two seasons while they were struggling to build some depth.
“As of right now, I’m shifting all over the place,” Rucker said. “We got different packages for different things so, honestly, my role can range from being a three technique (down lineman) in our pass rushing to being a nine technique in our dime (pass coverage) personnel.”
The Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) were one of seven teams that gained more than 400 yards against Carolina (1-1, 0-1) last season. The Heels rank fifth in the ACC in total defense through two games, allowing just 283 yards per game.
Part of their improvement is because their depth has allowed Bateman to play situational football with his personnel.
UNC used six defensive backs on obvious passing downs several times against Georgia State and only allowed one first down conversion when they were playing. It’s something Bateman said they wanted to use last season, but felt like they didn’t have the personnel to play it.
“We put it in in the summer with the thought that we’d have three corners out there,” Bateman said. “Storm (Duck) has been a little banged up, but that was six DBs on the field. That was kind of something we felt like last year we didn’t have enough of.”
Carolina didn’t have reserves who were trusted enough to relieve the starters when coach Mack Brown first arrived. As he’s apt to point out, Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford played more than 90 snaps in their six overtime loss at Virginia Tech. That’s way too many plays for a defensive lineman to still be effective, but they felt they had no other options.
Players like sophomore lineman Clyde Pinder Jr. have helped Brown change his philosophy. Pinder has developed into a pass-rushing specialist who isn’t ready to be an every-down player yet, but he is effective enough to contribute with a singular focus.
“Maybe Clyde’s not ready to do some of the other things as well,” Brown said. “But (Bateman) can put him in the game in a speed package where we’re just rushing the passer and chasing down draws and screens and that’s 100 percent what it is.”
Brown added that it’s been a way the Heels can utilize some of the skills of their younger players before they are fully acclimated to the entire system. Their role can be simplified to doing one job in a specific package.
“Me and Ray (Vohasek) can go in probably like 10 plays back-to-back then we can get another group to go in and they’re fresh,” said sophomore lineman Myles Murphy, who recorded his first sack against Georgia State last week. “We come back, we’re going to be fresh so it’s going real good.”
It’s not just newcomers who benefit. Bateman said sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray is falling into the specialist category for some things that he does better than starting linebacker Eugene Asante.
Brown said Carolina got pushed around in the fourth quarter last year because his team was fatigued. It was never more clear than against Notre Dame and then Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl in which the Heels were engaged in a one-score game but were too fatigued to pull out a victory.
Starting nose tackle Ray Vohasek said he felt fresher in the fourth quarter of games compared to last season because of the amount of rotating the Heels are doing. But that’s not the only reason he’s all for the specialist packages.
“It’s good to get different guys in there that have different skill sets and give offensive linemen different looks,” Vohasek said.
The players have bought into the rotation, even those who won’t play as many snaps because of it.
“Coach Brown says all the time your morale starts from the bottom up,” Bateman said. “It’s easy for (starting linebacker) Jeremiah Gemmel to have great morale. When the backup mike (middle linebacker) is playing and the backup Will’s (weak-side linebacker) are playing and the backup bandit (strong) safety’s playing, I think you start to get more of a buy in and you create more depth in your defense.”