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April 19, 2011North Carolina is replacing a lot of players heading into the 2011 season on the gridiron, but one area in which the Tar Heels are going to be deep and experienced is at defensive tackle.
'Technically' the Tar Heels are losing Marvin Austin, who wouldn't be coming back this season even if he hadn't been ruled ineligible last year.
And Quinton Coples, who was All-ACC for Carolina a year ago at defensive tackle, has moved back to his more natural position of defensive end.
Aside of that UNC welcomes back all of its top interior defensive performers from a year ago, including multi-year starter Tydreke Powell and others such as Jordan Nix and Jared McAdoo.
Between Powell, Nix, and McAdoo the Tar Heels are returning 84 combined tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks from a year ago.
"We felt really good (this spring) about Tydreke Powell and we felt really good about Jordan Nix. We thought 'Here are two guys that are seniors. They've been in the program for a long time,'" said UNC head coach Butch Davis.
"Jordan Nix and all the other guys---Tydreke (Powell), going against him, he's really shown up. The whole defensive line is doing a great job," added offensive guard Jonathan Cooper.
But in an effort to add even more talent and depth to the defensive tackles, the Tar Heels went out and found a JUCO in Sylvester Williams who appears ready to make an immediate and significant contribution.
"They (Powell and Nix), just like everybody else, need competition. They need somebody trying to take their job away from them," Davis added.
Williams has impressed most everyone on the UNC team over the past few months with his playing ability and his readiness to step straight in and be a key factor in the middle of the defensive front.
"Sylvester is extraordinarily active. I think if you were going to describe him as a football player, he's got a lot of short-area quickness. He's explosive. He's powerful at the point of attack," said Davis.
"He clearly is a guy that comes into your program in a short amount of time and he's had a chance to make some impression on our football team and our coaching staff one, because he's got two years of college experience."
"Sylvester Williams, he came in and he's doing a very good job," said Cooper.
"Here's a kid and it's not like the typical high school defensive lineman that comes in and he's kind of 'star struck' and feeling his way," Davis added about Williams.
"This guy came in on a mission that he wanted to play. He wanted to compete for a starting job. He wanted to get himself in that rotation to know that he's going to have a chance to play."
Coach Davis says the way that Williams has come in and worked since he arrived in Chapel Hill has served as extra motivation to Powell, Nix, McAdoo, and the rest of the Tar Heel defensive tackles.
"He (Williams) has done everything that we've ever asked him to do. He's a terrific worker in the weight room. He runs. He lifts. He's been a great inspiration in that meeting room," said Davis.
"I think that Sylvester has provided not only his own personal motivation, but I think it's helped spur them (the other D-tackles) along to not get complacent and not say 'I can put it on 'Auto Pilot' and I can cruise.' We're very happy that Sylvester is in this program."
Powell ('nose tackle') and Nix ('three-technique') emerged through spring practice as North Carolina's two starters at the two defensive tackle posts, but Williams and McAdoo both pushed them hard as the top two backups.
There's also redshirt freshmen Quinton Alton, who has grown into a truly imposing presence, and Ethan Farmer, who is developing and improving continually.
That gives UNC as many as six players that have at least one year of college practice experience under their belt at defensive tackle, and three guys who have played at least two seasons.
And there's also Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown, the top defensive tackles in North Carolina's high school ranks in the Class of 2011, coming in during the summertime as true freshmen.
Brown could potentially turn into a defensive end considering that UNC only signed one other 2011 projected defensive end (Tyler Alberts), but with his explosiveness and frame, Brown has excellent potential as an interior player at tackle.
There was a time when North Carolina would have needed players the caliber of Brown and Underwood to come in and play heavily right away, but UNC's depth situation at defensive tackle makes it where they could realistically be redshirt possibilities if the older players stay healthy.
The battles between the UNC offensive and defensive linemen each day got pretty intense at times this spring on the practice fields.
With the offensive line emerging as one of the strengths of the team, the Tar Heel defensive tackles had a chance to work in March and April against some very good players like Cooper, Cam Holland, and Travis Bond, among others.
"The first day (of practice) the coaches were kind of saying how the offense was better than the defense, and then the next practice the defense really turned it on. The whole defensive front actually looked very good," said Cooper.
It got quite testy at times out on the practice fields this spring---testy enough that a couple skirmishes broke out between the offensive and defensive linemen.
It might not sound like the best way to build camaraderie on a football team, but it might also just be the kind of rough and tumble work that can actually make a team better.
It's not uncommon for offensive and defensive linemen on the same team to have a friendly rivalry given the amount of time they hit each other on a daily basis in practice, and sometimes that friendly rivalry can get a little unfriendly in the heat of competition and fighting for playing time.
For UNC's defensive tackles, heading into a season in which they can be a lynchpin of the North Carolina defense, those experiences on the practice fields this spring---both good and bad---can only serve to help them heading into the offseason months.
This is a group that has to pick up the Tar Heel defense and carry it on its ample shoulders as the team makes several transitions at linebacker and in the secondary.
On paper UNC looks like a rebuilding defense in a lot of ways, but the defensive tackles can dispel that notion tremendously come fall if they play the way they're capable of playing.