“It’s a very important position,” Bunting said. “And it’s one of the things that really hurt us in ’02 and ’03, before we got a little bit better. Last year, we got a lot better.”
This spring the names are familiar: seniors Brian Rackley and Melik Brown; junior Hilee Taylor; with junior Kentwan Balmer expected to return for training camp; and potential impact freshman Darrius Massenburg expected to enroll during the summer.
Finding defensive ends on the recruiting trail is the hardest of all.
“You’ve really got to be careful, because you just can’t think because the guy is big that he can play,” Bunting said. “You have to get guys that have speed to play the perimeter. So we’re making a special effort to get a lot of guys in here and see this place and take a look at that tape.
Meanwhile, harvesting the talent already in-house is what spring practice is about. And when Tar Heel fans think speed at the position, they think of Taylor; who returned to practice this week and has already made his presence known. Bunting also remarked on how new DE’s coach Danny Pearman is “really reaching” Taylor.
“Hilee has had a couple of very good practices coming back,” Bunting said. “The other day in the scrimmage he had at least two or three sacks.”
Taylor’s weight is up 20 pounds to 240, and his running just as fast or faster.
“He’s becoming a very explosive player,” Bunting said. “It’s so important for Hilee Taylor to stay healthy, so we can get him out there, rush the passer and set an edge on the defense.”
Knee and foot problems hampered Taylor last season -- after recording 4.5 sacks in ’04, he only took down the quarterback once in '05.
Balmer, recovering from off-season knee surgery, will shift to and from end and tackle when he returns, Bunting said. Balmer played in all 11 games last season and started the final three, recording 17 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup.
Rackley’s numbers were also down last season from his sophomore year. He started the first eight games of ’05 before suffering a concussion against Boston College that effectively ended his season.
Therefore Rackley is approaching this spring differently than any other.
“I have more goals set this year,” Rackley said. “I know I have to go out there and stand out. Right now I’m just trying to lead my teammates and get them headed in the right direction, as well as getting myself motivated and in the right direction.
“I’m seeing the ball better and fitting the plays better now. I’m working on coming off the ball hard, reacting to the play and seeing things before they actually happen.”
Brown saw action as a reserve and on special teams last year, but is having an outstanding spring and is making his case for a starting job in his final year. His best outing last season was in the Tar Heels’ 31-17 win over Utah, in which he made two tackles, sacked the quarterback and forced a fumble.
Finally, Bunting firmly reiterated Massenburg’s progress at Hargrave Military Academy is going “extremely well,” and that he expects him to pass admissions at UNC and be ready to contribute this fall.