2012 Football: UNC's Rankin ready to unleash his talents
By Ryan Bisesi
CHAPEL HILL — Nothing about Darien Rankin says he likes the sideline.
He rarely ventured there at Ludwig Stadium and for someone with his athletic prowess, it was only a matter of time before the chance to shine came at North Carolina.
It was a big change going from state-title dreams to the bench for Rankin. He was the big man on Lincolnton Road his senior year, excelling in football, basketball and track. The 2011 Rowan County Athlete of the Year redshirted his first year on campus to get used to the environment.
The bottled-up athleticism that was repressed last year is ready to explode in Chapel Hill. Rankin’s been practicing with the starters and getting plenty of reps while working hard in the weight room.
“I’m ready to unleash my talents and see what I’ve got,” Rankin said. “I bring the role of speed and coverage. I can be a good asset.”
He’ll get a chance to do that early in his college career. The 6-foot strong safety is one of many in a youthful secondary under a new staff and fresh direction. UNC’s roster handed out at “Meet The Heels Day” says Rankin is 190 pounds, although Rankin claims he’s moved up 196. His imposing nature wasn’t lost on opponents at Salisbury and was on display again at UNC’s Media Day. The powder blue jersey with 27 on the front fit a little tighter, but it won’t bog him down.
“I wanted to get faster and get in the playbook this offseason,” Rankin said.
Last year, Rankin and former teammate Romar Morris were stationary, taking in the experience and the requirements of being a Division I college football player.
“It gave me a chance to get college under my belt,” Rankin said. “I’ve got my confidence up.”
In Carolina’s new 4-2-5 defense, Rankin has moved ahead of fellow freshman Sam Smiley at strong safety. Smiley was No.1 on the depth chart when it was released in July, but Rankin has embraced the new scheme, which varies from the base nickel sets that was common last year.
“We’re not just sit-back safeties,” Rankin said. “It’s different because you can disguise it. We’re not just walking around. We’re not sitting around. Everybody’s contributing.”
Rankin, who starred at Salisbury in the “Hornet” position, will play behind the “Ram” slot that features 5-11, 200-pound Gene Robinson.
While helping the Hornets to a state title, he was an All-State selection and was defensive MVP of the state-title game. He attended a UNC camp in June 2010 and received an offer from UNC after working with Everett Withers, the head coach in 2011.
It was the first FCS offer he got. When Butch Davis was fired a year ago, Rankin stayed true to the school he dreamed of playing for all the way back to when he first dunked a basketball in sixth grade.
Rankin admits there will be some adjustments to the speed of the college game and the dexterity that the safety position demands.
“The toughest thing is adjusting to breaks,” Rankin said. “I’m adjusting to each and every direction.”
The UNC program has been one of the most scrutinized in the country following an academic scandal. But now energetic head coach Larry Fedora hopes to revitalize a team coming off a 7-6 season. UNC started 3-0 last year but dropped five of its last seven games, including a 41-24 Independence Bowl loss to Missouri.
The Heels start the year Sept. 1 against Elon at home. New defensive backs coach Dan Disch followed Fedora over from Southern Miss.
“We’re tight,” said Rankin of his relationship with Disch. “We goof around, but when it comes to business, I can take him seriously.”
Whenever homesickness strikes, Morris is right down the hall as Rankin’s suitemate.
“We’re still like brothers,” Rankin said. “We add a little more junk-talking in there but we’re still family.”
For now, Rankin’s making the Kenan Stadium field his new home and leaving the sideline.