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UNC Linebackers playing the speed game

Posted July 27, 2009

Each football offseason seems to bring about tales of some mythical occurrence, whether it be a true freshman that’s turned heads in 7-on-7 or a weight-lifting record shattered with a Herculean effort. For the UNC program, that topic of conversation has revolved around linebacker Zach Brown’s 4.26 40.

While that time may be impossible for most to believe, the entire North Carolina football squad was in attendance during the Tar Heels’ strength and conditioning timing day back in the spring. Starting quarterback T.J. Yates was standing beside the assistant coach in charge of timing the 40-yard dashes.

“The first time he ran it, nobody believed it,” Yates told reporters during Sunday’s ACC Football Kickoff at Grandover Resort. “We were like, ‘Does that really say a 4.28?’ And then he got all of the coaches to come down and time him, and then he ran like a 4.26. Our whole team was out here, and all of the coaches, and everybody just erupted. Everybody was in disbelief… That’s insane.”

Defensive end E.J. Wilson had just finished his 40-yard dash less than 10 minutes earlier, putting down an impressive 4.73 of his own.

“The first time he ran, we were like, ‘Yeah, Zach’s kind of moving fast,’” Wilson said. “But we didn’t expect a 4.2. Then we saw the clock. Then all of the coaches had their own clock and everybody had 4.2 except for one coach, and he had a 4.3 flat.”

Six stopwatches were present for Brown’s second attempt. Adding even more humor to the time is the fact that his form was not boasting of perfection.

“He could still critique his 40 time,” Yates said. “He kind of started off to the left a little bit and then he straightened it back up. He could definitely get it down a little bit more… He’s just raw power and speed.”

Not bad for a 6-foot-2 sophomore linebacker that checks in at 230 pounds and benches 380 pounds. Wilson indicated that Brown is also one of the strongest pound-for-pound athletes in the program, prompting this comment from the fifth-year senior – “He’s just a freak of nature.”

Brown also dominated an offseason training competition, winning an estimated 10 different events that ranged from sprinting to dragging sleds 100 yards.

Granted, the Tar Heels were timed on a Mondo track surface, which is estimated to be worth five-hundredths of a second to one-tenth of a second faster than other surfaces, but Brown’s speed in conjunction with that of fellow starting linebackers Bruce Carter (4.46) and Quan Sturdivant (4.43) has the makings of what ESPN tabbed as “arguably the fastest linebacking trio in the country.”

“I haven’t seen a group of linebackers this fast since I’ve really been following college football,” Wilson said. “All of our linebackers run a 4.4 and one of them runs a 4.2? That’s unheard of.”

Yates echoed those sentiments, saying, “Those linebackers over there are some of the fastest that I’ve ever seen… They can run. The things that might have worked in the past – our old slide naked or a running back running out the other side – they’ll hawk them down like it’s nothing. They’ve got the speed and they’re getting a lot smarter.”

Brown will likely take over at weakside linebacker, as Sturdivant slid over to middle linebacker upon Mark Paschal’s graduation. The junior from Oakboro, N.C. led the nation with 87 unassisted tackles in ’08, and is expected to earn preseason All-ACC honors this week in Greensboro.

“Quan goes to the ball with a purpose,” Wilson said. “He’ll let you know he’s coming. He has no problem with contact – he actually likes it. And one thing people don’t know about Quan is that he’s actually one of the smartest football players on the team, along with Bruce [Carter].”

Carter (68 tackles, five sacks) remains bunkered down in his strongside linebacker position, having a resume of supernatural accomplishments that rivals Brown’s – how does a school record 40.5-inch vertical jump sound?

“Bruce was more quiet when he first got here, more reserved, but he’s coming out of his shell,” Wilson said. “He’s starting to be a vocal leader, which is something that’s really going to help this defense.”

Not getting any media attention is a bevy of young talent in the linebacker corps, from Ebele Okakpu to Dion Guy to Linwan Euwell, as well as others.

“There are a lot of guys that are sitting on the bench that probably could be starting for any team in the country,” Wilson said. “I think those guys are really going to help us, as far as coming in and giving Quan and Bruce and Zach a blow. And we also have Kevin Reddick – it’s going to be a good battle in training camp between Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown to see who wins that starting position.”

Speed kills, but only if it’s going in the right direction. Sturdivant and Carter have proven that they can harness their velocity in a productive manner. Opposing programs are hoping that Brown and Co. have a little more difficulty in achieving that end goal.

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