Turner's Take: Tall Tales of Darius Lipford
Darius Lipford waited a long time for a day like Saturday. It was the day after Christmas 2011 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the Independence Bowl. Seven months later, he would suffer a setback that would force him to miss the 2012 season, the Tar Heels’ first under Larry Fedora. From the time of the original injury until Saturday, Lipford’s first game back at Kenan Stadium, 621 days had passed. A long time.
“I’m always happy to be out there,” Lipford said after the game, a 40-20 Carolina victory over Middle Tennessee. “I was overwhelmed last week, going in to my first game back in almost two years, and then this game in particular, being the first game back playing in front of the home crowd, in front of my friends and family. It was really special to me, and I felt like it was a really good game.”
It was a really good game, for Lipford in particular. He recorded seven tackles on the afternoon from the bandit position, including two for loss. A big hit on a 4th quarter kickoff? That was Lipford, too. Happy to be here, sure, but having a tremendous impact as well.
Lipford’s original injury didn’t come at a good time. The program was in the midst of a transition, and he couldn’t be on the field to show the new coaching staff what he could do. He was one of those players Fedora had heard about, but hadn’t seen. That pushed him to work harder to get back on the field. While his teammates played without him (“To have a freak on the sideline for us for a long time, it’s one of those things that you know the guy should be on the field causing havoc,” Tre Boston said), Lipford used the 2012 season to study the game of football from a different perspective, to learn his new position through film study and watching teammates, trying to make the best of a bad situation. “I kind of took some techniques from different guys and different situations, and it kind of helped build up the reservoir of moves that I have now, so it was really beneficial,” he said.
Now, there’s a lot of pent-up energy in his play. “You can see the fuel in him from being out so long,” said A.J. Blue, who himself missed a season after a knee injury. “You can see the hunger. With him making plays, it just makes him more confident and more comfortable with his knee, or with anything that he felt absent from.”
That reservoir of moves was certainly employed Saturday. Lipford used one of the advantages of his position - the ability to drop back in coverage or rush the quarterback - to get his first career sack. “They didn’t count me in the front,” he said of the Middle Tennessee offensive line. “It was the perfect play call for the situation. I came free from linebacker depth. I backed up, so the line didn’t count me in their pass blocking, so whenever the tackle crashed down, I just scraped off and the quarterback kind of hesitated and I saw a chance to make the play.”
“Every day,” Fedora said of Lipford, “A little light bulb comes on each time he has something happen on the field and he’s becoming more comfortable with just going, and going hard.”
Lipford and Norkeithus Otis (five tackles Saturday) are particularly well-suited for that bandit position. The two are similar in size (Lipford stands 6’3, two inches taller than Otis), and though Otis is listed first on the depth chart, the Tar Heels have packages that feature both on the field. “The packages with me and him on the field mainly are our money packages,” Lipford said. “It’s just great, because it gives us the chance to set up some mismatches against the offensive line, and we can scheme up, because me and him are two of the more athletic guys on the defense.”
Lipford’s teammates affectionately call him a freak. They talk of him as if he’s the subject of a tall tale, Paul Bunyan or John Henry. “Look at the guy!” Blue said. “Long arms, really explosive, and he can go back from the bandit and play in coverage as well.”
“He jumps like a 39 (vertical),” Jack Tabb said. “He has almost an 11-foot broad jump. He’s as strong as an ox. To have him as a leader off the field, and to have him on the field just as a presence alone is a great thing to have.”
On Saturday, Darius Lipford showed exactly why he’s an asset to the Tar Heel defense. One gets the feeling that he’s not done. “He’s had it all along, he’s just been injured,” Martin said. “Today, he was able to showcase it.”
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