The prototype for North Carolina's Ram position is a defender quick enough to play man coverage and physical enough to stop the run. Terry Shankle thrives in the former, while Brandon Ellerbe prevails in the latter, resulting in a solid combination.
Shankle played corner during his first four injury-riddled years at UNC. Ellerbe started at safety as a freshman in 2011 before moving to the Ram last season.
Ellerbe (6-foot, 220 pounds) has never been one to shy away from contact, while Shankle (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) is admittedly a leg-slicer type of tackler. Shankle, however, possesses the man cover skills that UNC lacked and Vic Koenning desperately wanted at the Ram position last season.
It's called a hybrid position for a reason, and until an ideal candidate arrives via recruiting, Koenning and his staff will continue to mold his current players into the role. By working together, Shankle and Ellerbe have made strides despite competing for the same starting spot.
"Both of them are doing a really nice job," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Friday's practice.
Shankle hails from Norwood, N.C., some miles due east of Charlotte. Ellerbe is from Wadesboro, just 19 miles south of Norwood on Highway 52.
When Ellerbe switched to the Ram in 2012, he didn't understand how to play from a cornerback's perspective. A year in, he's learned to focus on wide receivers' hips to see how they will break and understands pass routes and split concepts, thanks in part to his teammate and longtime friend.
"Terry is teaching me a lot of things," Ellerbe said. "I've known Terry since high school. With man-to-man, he's teaching me how to use my footwork, because that's kind of my weakness. But also, with me having experience with this position, I'm also teaching him how to play some things, too, because it's his first year at the position."
It's not uncommon for these two Rams to coach each other up during practice to fine-tune their responsibilities. And with UNC taking snaps at ludicrous speed, it's beneficial to split reps with someone you trust.
"It helps because you want to be fresh on the field," Shankle said. "You don't want to be tired. When you're playing a high number of plays, you can't do your best running 60-70 plays. It's just not realistic. We train hard, but you don't want to be out there dead when they've got fresh legs. So it helps knowing that you've got somebody just as good as you going in."
For Shankle, the most difficult part of the transition to Ram has been learning the different leverages. As a corner, he worked on the outside, whereas now he's working on the inside. Despite those challenges, his move has been a positive for the defense.
"Terry's more of a physical player and he's got great coverage skills, so he can do everything that we want to do from that position," Fedora said. "He can still get into the box and help with the run. He can still fill the gap when he needs to and he can cover slots man-to-man, so that's a big advantage for us."
Fedora added that true freshman Donnie Miles has emerged as a legitimate third option at the Ram position.
Ellerbe, on the other hand, has grown into the position over the past 12 months.
"It's all about reading keys," Ellerbe said. "Coming out of high school, I was used to playing the safety position. [The Ram] is kind of like a nickel back – you have to have the instincts of a corner and a safety. So the more I've played this position, the more I've read my keys, the more I pick up on what I'm supposed to be doing and where I'm supposed to be at that particular time."
While the ideal Ram may require a merging of their skills, Shankle and Ellerbe are smoothing the edges by helping each other along.
"It's an advantage for both of us," Ellerbe said. "We both come out here every day competing with each and trying to get better."