Fast-forward three years. The promising 2010 season never materialized, of course. It was derailed by NCAA violations resulting in suspensions for several key players and the resignation of defensive line coach John Blake. The 2011 season was marred by the firing of head coach Butch Davis before the first game. Now in 2012, with a new staff led by head coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have few remnants of their dominant defense from three years ago.
Linebacker Kevin Reddick, who started seven games and made 45 tackles as a freshman in 2009, returns for his senior season. The rest of the tackle output from 2009 by current UNC players is as follows: Dion Guy 5, Gene Robinson 2, Devon Ramsay 2, Casey Barth 2, Jheranie Boyd 1. It's worth noting here that Ramsay is a fullback, Barth is a kicker and Boyd is a wide receiver.
The UNC defense might be many things this season, but experienced is not one of them. Reddick is the lone reminder of the last time the Tar Heels were good enough—no, make that bad enough—to strike fear into opposing offenses. Reddick is, in a sense, the last man standing. And he is well aware of his status.
"I'm the old head on the block," Reddick said. "Like I told the guys, I've played with some good guys and some bad guys. I've done been through it all. That's what I try to tell them when we talk. I tell them to go out there and ball out, just do your part, don't worry too much about the other man.
"That's how we were in '09. We didn't worry about the other man. We just did our part. Everybody had their own part they had to do, part of that 1 of 11. We did our part, and it kind of turned out great sometimes."
The expectations for UNC's defense this season are nowhere near where they were three years ago. In fact, there seems to be few expectations—from the outside, anyway—for UNC's defense at all. Fedora brought his fast-paced spread attack with him from Southern Mississippi, where he spent the last four seasons as head coach, and UNC's adjustment to the new offense generated most of the headlines and media coverage during the spring.
Reddick and his defensive teammates were just as busy as quarterback Bryn Renner and the offense in learning a new system. But the buzz about the Tar Heels' new 4-2-5 defensive scheme—a departure from the traditional 4-3 alignment that they have employed for years under numerous head coaches—wasn't very strong.
"It's always been like that," Reddick said. "That's how it is. That's why they call defense ‘the dark side.' We don't get too much attention. We just go out there and play on game day. The offense takes all the shine. It's always going to be about the offense, no matter what. But they'll talk about us on game day."
Much of that conversation figures to center on the play of Reddick, who at 6-3, 240 pounds is the undisputed leader of the defense. Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning, who is orchestrating UNC's defense along with defensive coordinator Dan Disch, didn't have to wait long to see Reddick's leadership qualities for himself.
"He exudes a certain amount of confidence without being cocky," said Koenning, who coaches UNC's inside linebackers. "It comes from being experienced. I immediately could tell the respect that his teammates have for him.
"It became evident very quickly that he was what I call the barometer for the football team. How he goes, we're going to go. There are just all of those intrinsic things that you could tell that he has. He just has a little bit of that ‘it factor,' and that's the reason that his teammates follow him."
The Tar Heels follow Reddick because he is reliable. Unflappable. When former UNC safety Deunta Williams suffered a gruesome injury in the 2010 Music City Bowl that left his right foot pointed in the wrong direction, Reddick didn't panic or turn away from the scene squeamishly. He did just the opposite, taking charge in a crisis situation to help a teammate in need. Reddick moved in quickly to put Williams's foot back into its proper place before the UNC training staff made its way out to Williams.
Unfortunately for Reddick, he is all too prepared to respond to adversity when it strikes. He has endured more than his shares of tribulations since leading New Bern High to the 2007 4-AA state championship as a linebacker and fullback.
Reddick signed with the Tar Heels in February 2008, accepting UNC's scholarship offer over offers from the likes of Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and others. He enrolled at UNC in the summer of 2008, but his happiness in his new surroundings was short-lived. Reddick had to retake the ACT after his qualifying score was questioned by the NCAA, and he did not get the score he needed on the next try. So Reddick spent the fall semester of 2008 at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., before he was able to return to Chapel Hill and enroll at UNC in January 2009.
Just before his sophomore season, Reddick encountered more trouble. The off-campus apartment he shared with teammate Michael McAdoo burned after a tenant in another unit disposed of a cigar improperly. Reddick was home at the time of the fire, having just ordered a pizza. He looked out his window and saw shingles falling from the roof of his building, but he thought nothing other than that someone must have been working on the roof.
When Reddick caught a glimpse of fire as he closed his blinds, he grabbed his shoes and wallet as he walked out the door. That was the extent of his possessions by the time night fell. The fire destroyed everything else, including his state championship ring from high school. The item Reddick missed most, though, was his computer because it contained hundreds of photos of his infant daughter, Kamalani. The incident left Reddick displaced and disappointed, but not discouraged.
"It just showed me to be careful, to watch your surroundings," he said. "I mean, it could happen anywhere. It also taught me to come to be thankful for what I have. It's on my testimony. It keeps me going."
Reddick's past fuels him during the present, but his future gives him even more motivation to be great. Reddick wants to provide financially for Kamalani, whose name means "chief's child." Kamalani spent much of the offseason with Reddick, but she lives in New Bern during the season. She attends his games, and he cherishes their time together on weekends during the fall. For Reddick, God is first and Kamalani is second. Everything else in his life falls in line behind those two things.
If Reddick is to realize his goal of playing professional football to provide for his family, he knows he needs a big 2012 season. But he isn't going to let the pressure to perform become a negative influence. His mind off the field is just like his body on it: in the right place.
"I'm going to give it all I've got," Reddick said. "We're going to go out and try to win games. It's team first. We're going to go out and try to win 12 games, be undefeated and do the best we can do. We're going to give it all we've got every play, every game, starting in practice.
"For me, I just want to go out there and be the best I can be. I want to make the plays that are there for me and then try to make more. I don't worry about the NFL because I'm in college now. You can't be two places at once."
Reddick figures to get plenty of opportunities to showcase his playmaking ability this season. UNC's defensive system features a pair of ear-catching positions for fans: Bandit (a hybrid defensive end/linebacker) and Ram (a hybrid linebacker/defensive back). But make no mistake about the situation. The featured spot in the defense, at least early in the season before some other Tar Heels prove themselves as productive players, will be Reddick's middle linebacker spot.
"One of the positive things about the system is that it's multiple enough where you can take your best players and move them around to where you can create matchup issues and put your best players in position to make plays," Koenning said. "Kevin is going to have to be one of the bell cows. He's going to have to be one of the guys who steps up and is a playmaker for us to be successful.
"We're going to pull out the things in the system that enable the Mike linebacker to be the big-time player. If we get guys at other positions who step up and show that they're ready for prime time, we'll put those packages in."
Reddick is going to be all over the place—and not just after the ball is snapped. He will line up on the edge from time to time. He will blitz inside. But whatever he does, he will do it with ferocity. The Tar Heels aren't going to be a "read and react" defense. They are going to attack, and Reddick will play a huge role in the onslaught. UNC's new defense keeps the linebackers slightly farther away from the line of scrimmage than traditional systems, with the idea being that Reddick and his mates will wreak havoc when they get a running start.
"We're coming downhill," Koenning said. "We're not going to be up there near the line of scrimmage and being soft. We're going to be attacking. If two cars run into each other and they're the same car and one is going 30 mph and the other is going 50 mph, the one that's going 50 mph is going to have the better of the collision. We're going to back ourselves up, and we're going to come downhill, and we're going to be going as fast as we can go."
The philosophy could end up being a nice fit for Reddick, who finished second on the team with 71 tackles a year ago. Reddick has four years of starting experience to draw upon, knowledge that enables him to read his keys and diagnose the intentions of the opposing offense quickly.
"I'm a lot smarter now," he said. "I think that's what I've got over a lot of people. I might not be the fastest, but I know where to be as far as the plays or what's going to happen here or there. I think my instincts for the ball are pretty good. That's what I've got over a lot of people. I'm smarter and know where to be."
Reddick and the Tar Heels hope that his experience and instincts pay off in a big way in 2012. He turned down chances to play elsewhere for his senior season—he had a choice to transfer without sitting out a season because the Tar Heels are ineligible to play in a bowl game—because he wanted to be part of a new beginning at UNC. He is looking to be All-ACC and All-America. He wants to win the Butkus Award as college football's best linebacker. His individual goals are lofty, much higher than they were three years ago when he stepped on the field at his first training camp ready to do his 1 of 11 on one of the nation's top defenses.
Many UNC athletes—across all sports—arrive at the start of their senior season and wonder where the time went. They note how the years passed quickly and remark how they can't believe that they have just one season remaining. Time flies when you're having fun, right?
Reddick is an exception. He has had some fun, sure, but he has dealt with issues that many of his fellow student-athletes haven't. He welcomed a daughter into the world shortly before losing nearly everything he owned. He has watched his team go from championship contention to postseason ineligibility. He is playing for his third head coach in as many years.
The situation isn't what anybody imagined three years ago, but Reddick isn't complaining. He is making the most of his situation, just like always.
"I've been through a lot," he said. "I don't think it's gone that fast. I feel like I should have been out of here by now, but that's just how it is. It's been a great four years, and I hope to finish out with a bang."