If he wanted to reach for them, Sean Spence has plenty of viable excuses for his drop in production last season.
He could blame the knee injury that cost him three games and slowed him down. He could point to his position switch -- from weakside linebacker to strongside linebacker -- as the reason why he didn't come close to matching the 65 tackles he made as a freshman when he was the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
But the 6-foot, 217-pound junior-to-be isn't doing any finger pointing for his unspectacular sophomore season -- except at himself. "I have to go out there, make plays and help my team win. I didn't do that," Spence said Wednesday after the Hurricanes' sixth practice of the spring.
"I can't say it was a lack of maturity. I can't say it was my knee. All I can say was it was a lack of production. Last season just made me hungrier to want it even more this year."
Spence, who finished his sophomore season seventh on the team with 36 tackles including 6.5 for loss and three sacks, is already impressing his teammates this spring with his bounce-back attitude. Cornerback Brandon Harris said Spence, a childhood friend, "looks fast, looks physical."
"He's going in there, head on head with the offensive lineman, shedding blocks, making plays," Harris said. "He's a great motivator for the defense. He's a guy who is going to speak up when something needs to be spoken, keep everybody humble.
"I think it affected us tremendously [when he went out]. His presence on the field, it gives everybody a comfort level and a high and allows us to play faster and smoother. He makes sure everybody is on the right page. When you have somebody like Sean on your defense, you know automatically you can count on him to make a big play. When you got a guy like that on the field, the rest of our jobs are easy."
Spence started the first seven games of the season for the Hurricanes before injuring his knee in the first half against Clemson. He then missed the next three games, including arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season against Wake Forest and the loss at North Carolina. He said he "didn't really feel right" until the bowl game. Missing time was tough to deal with mentally for Spence -- especially since he didn't miss any games in high school and played in all 13 games and started nine for UM as a freshman.
"Me and Sean are close friends and during that injury time he wasn't himself," Harris said. "It was hard for him to sit out and not be able to travel with the team and having to watch the games on TV and he'll call me after the games and was very disappointed he couldn't be out there. He did extra rehab, everything to make that injury process happen faster. But he sat out for a reason."
Spence, who said he's gained five pounds of muscle since the end of the season, has remained at strongside linebacker this spring with senior Colin McCarthy on the weakside. With so many young and inexperienced linebackers on the team, Spence said he's tried to take on more of a vocal leadership role on the field and in the film room at the urging of new linebackers coach Micheal Barrow.
"It's a new season, new year," UM coach Randy Shannon said. "and he's starting off fast right now in spring football."
A FEW MORE TIDBITS...
> Trying to earn a kicking job on a team with Matt Bosher isn't easy. The All-ACC First Team kicker and second team punter handled all three facets last season for the Hurricanes including kickoffs. But redshirt sophomore Jake Wieclaw, who temporarily handled kickoffs before losing the job to walk-on Alex Uribe and then Bosher, is hoping he can finally win one of those three jobs come the fall.
With Bosher out this spring (he reportedly injured his shoulder in a car accident), Wieclaw is being given every chance by Shannon to impress this spring. So far, Wieclaw says, all the special teams work has been centered on blocking. But he'll get a few chances to kick in pressure situations Saturday.
"I've always felt pretty comfortable inside of 40 [yards], Anything outside of 40 for a kicker isn't easy, but you should be making those," said Wieclaw, who feels his best shot at earning a job could be on kickoffs. "If [Bosher] does all three, then he does all three. If they need my help anywhere then I'll see what I can do to help out."
> It took cornerback Demarcus Van Dyke 33 college games before he intercepted his first past last season against Wake Forest. That's the only pick he has in three years. But so far through his first two practices in the spring, he's made interceptions on both days. Tuesday, Van Dyke said he got some tutoring from Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed about taking better angles.
If Reed, 31, decides to retire, the Hurricanes might want to ask him to become a volunteer assistant. His senior year at UM in 2001, he had nine interceptions. Last season, UM had nine as a team (five more than in 2008).