There’s no doubt that the defensive front four is Butch Davis’ passion – after all, the second-year head coach was a defensive line coach for nine years before assuming the defensive coordinator position with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993.
“I’m a huge proponent and a believer that you’ve got to have eight or nine, and God bless you if you could ever come up with 10 defensive linemen that could play in every single game,” Davis said during Friday’s Media Day press conference. “I think it’s one of the most critical, determining factors of how well your defense plays.”
With Taylor’s move to the NFL in April, there was an immediate and obvious hole at the defensive end spot opposite E.J. Wilson. And while Davis may be hoping for potentially 10 defensive linemen to play this season, finding a reliable option with the first string appeared to be a major concern heading into training camp.
Red-shirt sophomore Darrius Massenburg missed the spring due to a hand injury, red-shirt sophomore Vince Jacobs switched to end from tight end, red-shirt sophomore Darius Powell has gotten some press for his speed, and the three true freshmen (Quinton Coples, Robert Quinn and Michael McAdoo) were all highly recruited out of high school.
And then there’s Elleby.
The Tabor City, N.C. product began his career as a Tar Heel listed at defensive tackle, then seemingly got lost in the shuffle and was moved to defensive end. And despite emerging from spring practice listed as a co-starter at his position, the red-shirt sophomore has become an overlooked, almost forgotten, option for defensive line coach John Blake.
“The forgotten guy has worked the hardest, though,” said Elleby, who indicated that his interview with Inside Carolina on Saturday was his first media encounter since enrolling at UNC in the summer of ‘06. “I’ve worked hard. The coaches see that and the strength and conditioning staff sees that. I’m the left out guy – I’m not in the media like the freshmen, Massenburg, or E.J. They’re all in the media. I’m just a guy in the back, but I’m still on the first team. Hard work pays off.”
Elleby has remained relatively unknown due to a lack of playing time for North Carolina – the 6-foot-4, 284-pounder played in just six games last fall, totaling three tackles and a tackle for loss on the season. But the lack of media attention has only served to drive his postseason workout habits, aided by watching two former Tar Heels that are currently in NFL training camps.
“I developed that mindset from Kentwan [Balmer] and Hilee [Taylor],” Elleby said. “Those guys go hard every practice, every day in the weight room and running in the summertime, and I just took that from them and I’m trying to continue that.”
Elleby spent the offseason working on his quickness, speed and agility with strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors and his staff, and the effort has apparently paid off.
The long-armed lineman is currently running with the first unit at strongside defensive end in the base 4-3 defense, and then is listed with the second team at the three-technique (defensive tackle) on the speed team in passing downs. He gives a lot of credit to his position coach for his emergence from the shadows.
“Coach Blake -- that’s the man, right there,” Elleby said. “To have him coach me up every day is a privilege. He’s the best in the business – he’s my way to the league. I listen to what he has to tell me every day.”
If his hard work and development continues at its current pace, then there’s little doubt that Elleby will become a common name among fans and the media following the season opener against McNeese State on Aug. 30.