Second-year head coach Larry Fedora is responsible for the hype surrounding his fourth-year junior, due to borderline ridiculous strength and conditioning numbers thrown about at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro last month.
“He’s one of the most gifted guys on our football team,” Fedora said. “I can tell you physically, he’s over a 400-pound bencher, they say he cleans over 375, squats over 500 pounds, he was close to 11 feet in the broad jump from my understanding, he’s like a 38-inch vertical. He’s freakish when you talk about testing. He can run [and] he can hit.”
Don’t worry if your initial reaction was something along the lines of: “Wait, who is this guy again?”
Lipford, hailing from Lenior, N.C., started four games at strongside linebacker as the 2011 season drew to a close, totaling 42 tackles as a true sophomore. His season ended on a brutal note, tearing his left ACL during UNC’s Independence Bowl loss to Missouri on Dec. 26.
While playing in 2012 was a long shot at best, Lipford powered through his rehab process and was involved in various activities by summertime. During the second week of July, he participated in a bag drill for the first time since his injury and promptly tore his ACL again.
“It was just a bad step,” Lipford told reporters this week.
He said his knee felt weak at first, but didn’t know the severity of the injury until his MRI came in the following Monday.
“It was rough,” Lipford said. “I came back and tried to battle back, taking reps and everything in the summer. I felt really great. I felt like I do now, just as fast and strong. It was a great recovery, but then one step and having to start over…
"It was pretty tough.”
Senior running back A.J. Blue suffered a similar injury early in his career and it just happened that his locker was in close proximity. Lipford talked with his teammate most days, soaking in words of encouragement and learning that his knee would be sore after practice and how important it would be to ice and stretch accordingly.
When UNC’s training camp opened last Thursday, Lipford was fully cleared for all activities.
“It feels great coming off the two knee injuries and having to bounce back and persevere through that,” Lipford said. “It was great just having my teammates behind me to encourage me and tell me not to give up. Coach Lou [Hernandez] and our strength and conditioning staff got me prepared for camp. The knee feels great, no doubt about it. I feel as strong and fast as I’ve been, so I’m looking forward to the season.”
Lipford played linebacker his first two seasons at UNC, but indicated the move to Bandit was a natural one.
“It’s an athletic position and I’m up for the challenge,” Lipford said.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder has packed on 20 pounds since his linebacker days while increasing both his strength and speed. He shied away from confirming his "freakish" tag, but acknowledged his teammates often refer to him in that regard.
The measurements are staggering. Lipford delivered a 10-foot-10 broad jump on his first attempt following his rehab. To put that in perspective, Jamie Collins, Fedora’s Bandit at Southern Miss, set the NFL Combine record with a broad jump of 11-foot-7 in February.
His vertical is actually 39 inches - not 38 as Fedora told reporters in Greensboro – and his 500-plus pound squat is one of the best on the team. And while Lipford hasn’t been timed in the 40-yard dash recently, he ran with the skill players during offseason conditioning.
“I was keeping up with them the whole time, in the middle or towards the front of the pack,” Lipford said.
The primary difference in the Bandit position from his previous linebacker role is putting a hand in the dirt, taking on more blockers and attacking the “A” gap more, according to Lipford. Pass coverage drops are different as the Bandit plays more zone and less man.
Lipford is competing with Norkeithus Otis and Shakeel Rashad at Bandit, although Fedora told reporters Rashad was “banged up” on Monday.
“He’s a huge, athletic, fast kid,” linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. “He’s starting to get the playbook down a little bit more and more every day.”
Fedora reiterated Lipford’s athleticism earlier this week, but declined to offer too much praise – “he’s making plays” - while noting his lengthy absence from the playing field.
The hype, however, appears to have already set in.