UNC's Rice has a newfound confidence the Heels will need

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Not much has gone right the past two seasons for North Carolina linebacker Chase Rice. He suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of the 2007 season opener and was told he'd miss the entire season. His father passed away in May, making it difficult to concentrate on anything, let alone working his way into the 2008 starting lineup.

At the beginning of this season, Rice was behind Bruce Carter and mainly used in nickel packages and on special teams. As a senior, he was frustrated with his lack of playing time, but made winning the greater priority and helped out where he could. Rice, usually a strongside linebacker, bounced around and played all three linebacker positions against NC State.

Now, as North Carolina prepares to face West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Rice is back in the starting lineup and confident from one of his best performances. In his first start since taking over for leading tackler Mark Paschal, who suffered a career-ending spine injury against NC State, Rice had a career-high 10 tackles in the Tar Heels' win over Duke.

"At the Duke game they finally gave me an opportunity to play and show what I could do and I feel like I did that," Rice said. "That's all I wanted, was a shot, and they gave that to me in the Duke game and I proved I can step in and play football. That's all I really wanted, was an opportunity and I took advantage of it. That helped me with my confidence, helped me get back into playing in a game situation. I feel confident about where I'm at, how I'm playing and know that I can do the job."

UNC will certainly need Rice -- and the entire defense -- to be sharp against the Mountaineers. UNC started the season with a bang and went out with somewhat of wimper, losing two of its last three games. They're looking to make a statement against the No. 12 rushing offense in the Big East. West Virginia, led by the tandem of quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine, is averaging 217.17 rushing yards.

"They make a lot of good decisions," said UNC safety Trimane Goddard. "They're very quick, elusive. You have to do your job. ... It's almost similar to Georgia Tech. It's a different style offense, but the discipline that you need is about equal."

North Carolina's defense, while it has excelled at scoring off turnovers, is 62nd in the nation in total defense and 58th in rushing defense.

"At the beginning of the year we were playing with a swagger, playing with a lot of confidence, having a lot of fun, and we're trying to get back to completely doing that," Rice said. "The way we've been practicing is definitely going to help us do that during the bowl game because we're getting back to having fun playing football, and that's the way the defense plays the best, especially."