CHAPEL HILL – Just when North Carolina’s defense is preparing to face one of its toughest opponents of the season -- undefeated and eighth-ranked Clemson, which is second in the ACC in total offense and points scored – the Tar Heels lose a starting linebacker.
Senior Ebele Okakpu has been dismissed for “conduct detrimental to the team,’’ interim head coach Everett Withers announced at his Monday news conference. Asked if the punishment was because of something that had happened during Saturday’s loss to Miami, Withers refused to elaborate on the reasons for Okakpu’s dismissal. But he said the linebacker from Roswell, Ga., will remain on scholarship and have a chance to graduate in the spring.
Okakpu, who had only 14 tackles in five starts, has been replaced on the depth chart by sophomore Darius Lipford, who started the Louisville game Oct. 8 when Okakpu was injured. Withers said Travis Hughes or Norkeithus Otis, both freshmen, could move into Okakpu’s spot as well.
“You recruit them to put them on the field and let them play,’’ Withers said when asked about the potential youth at that spot. “They've got to step up and play. You know, Ebele didn't start until this year so he was inexperienced too.”
No matter who plays in Okakpu’s spot, they will be tested.
The Tigers (7-0) boast the top passer in the league, Tajh Boyd, who is averaging 287.4 yards through the air – plus 309.9 overall yards per game. His favorite target is freshman Sammy Watkins, who is averaging 104.0 receiving yards per game, and who Withers called “talented, fast, athletic … maybe one of the best if not the best player in the country right now with all the things that he can do.”
Then there’s tailback Andre Ellington, who is averaging 105.7 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the league.
They will be the biggest test yet for UNC’s defense, which is allowing a middle-of-the-ACC 356.1 yards per game despite heralded pre-season expectations.
“Clemson is a very good team, and they have a lot of offensive weapons,’’ UNC defensive lineman Sylvester Williams said. “And I think this is going to be the game when we bring it all on the field to get a big-time win for this program.”
A SuperPrep All-American, Okakpu was a consensus Top 25 linebacker in high school rankings when he arrived at UNC in 2008. But he struggled to find his niche early, and spent his first three seasons on special teams and as a reserve linebacker, totaling 13 tackles. Last summer, he was one of three Tar Heels disciplined internally by former coach Butch Davis because they did not immediately inform the coaching staff about a car accident they were involved in.
This isn’t the first time Withers, the former defensive coordinator who took over the team when Davis was abruptly fired in July, has shown his disciplinary tendencies.
Senior Zach Brown played on special teams -- but did not start at linebacker, where he was leading the team in tackles at the time -- at Georgia Tech on Sept. 24. Defensive back Todd Harrelson was suspended for two games before he was ultimately re-instated.
“It's always tough when you have to dismiss kids from the team,’’ Withers said. “ … I don't care if he's a freshman or senior because the experiences - the football, the academic, the whole social everything - you're taking part of that away from him as a coach. And it's hard. … But it's something we felt like is best for this football team.”