Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning’s response upon hearing the news is symbolic of the collective UNC fan base’s initial reaction.
“What? Great! How much do we get him?”
Rashad tore the meniscus in his right knee on the first day of training camp. He told reporters following practice on Wednesday he knew the injury was serious as soon as it happened.
“Those bags over there get a little bit tricky,” Rashad said, pointing across the practice field, in explaining how the injury happened. “It wasn’t a person that did it to me. It was… they hit back sometimes. And this time they hit back pretty hard.”
It marked the third time in a few short years that Rashad (18 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks in ’12) had suffered the same injury. Once in high school and then again in January 2012, just a few days into his college career.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder wasn’t initially given an expected return date, which was essentially irrelevant considering he knew he was out for the season. Even so, he excelled in rehab, making sure to hit each benchmark – bending the knee 90 degrees at six weeks, for example – to return to full health as soon as possible.
By mid-October, Rashad was well ahead of his rehab schedule. So much, in fact, that a return to the field became a legitimate possibility. Following that initial conversation with the coaching staff, Rashad called his parents, who told him it was ultimately his decision.
Rashad went home and wrote down what he wanted to accomplish academically during his time at UNC. What classes he wanted to make, which fields he wanted to major in, when he wanted to graduate.
“I figured out that in four years I’d be able to get done exactly what I wanted to get done academically,” Rashad said. “At that point, when I figured out I could get it done academically, I said, ‘I’m tired of watching football games – I want to go back and play.’”
Although Rashad had worked out with strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez through the first half of the season, he wasn’t able to resume running until a few weeks before his eventual return against Virginia.
Even with conditioning serving as an on-going hurdle, the Jacksonville, Fla. native played 29 snaps against the Cavaliers, totaling two tackles and a sack.
“When I first got hurt, I was so sad to know I’d be out for the season,” Rashad said. “But I smiled ear-to-ear when I found out I’d have a chance to come back and smiled ear-to-ear again when I found out I could actually come back.”
Rashad’s return beefs up an already deep Bandit unit. Norkeithus Otis is tied for team lead in sacks (5.5) and ranks second with 9.0 tackles for loss, while Darius Lipford (27 tkl, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) provides an extra dose of speed and athleticism. Rookie Mikey Bart has also provided some physical play at the position in recent weeks.
“It helps us tremendously because you’ve got Norkeithus and Lipford and now [Rashad] and Mikey Bart, so we’re able to roll them in,” Fedora said on Wednesday. “We’re able to use Lipford more in the money package and be able to use him more in base, so it’s given us some real good depth there.”
Koenning indicated that Rashad’s addition will permit for situational substitutions depending on expected play calls.
“What it’s allowed us to do is get Norkeithus a little bit healthier and use him in passing situations,” Koenning said. “Mikey Bart has done a great job and you don’t want to limit him in his progress, so Shak can kind of back him up. Then we can use Norkeithus in passing situations.”
While Rashad will provide needed depth up front, his mere presence on the field throughout the week has proven beneficial.
“He’s a great guy to have out at practice,” Koenning said. “Wonderful young man. He’s been a blessing just to have back out there on the practice field as much as anything.”
The Bandit position was one of the few that possessed depth to Koenning’s liking prior to Rashad’s injury. Now that the talented sophomore is back in the mix, there are more schematic options available for UNC’s defense.