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UNC's Jeff Schoettmer balances football with course load

	Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jeff Schoettmer is playing his first year as a starter, first year under scholarship and first year in the Kenan-Flagler Business School. He leads UNC in tackles.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jeff Schoettmer is playing his first year as a starter, first year under scholarship and first year in the Kenan-Flagler Business School. He leads UNC in tackles.

Jeff Schoettmer arrives at the Kenan Stadium Football Center at 9:30 a.m. sharp. For the North Carolina linebacker, that’s sleeping in.

It’s Wednesday, and on Wednesdays Schoettmer gets a one-day reprieve from his 7:30 a.m. weight-room bludgeonings. Wednesday is an easy day. At least, relatively. He won’t get a break from the sweat. It’ll still come, just a little bit later.

Time to move. He marches up the inclined walkway toward South Road, taking on the icy mid-November breeze in his Carolina hoodie, navy blue sweat pants and neon green shoes.

His hair is glorious, regal, unpredictably curled. Golden layers interlock or curve outward, reflecting sunlight as they dangle wildly over his shoulders and back. There’ve been no scissors and no clippers for 16 months, but in that time Schoettmer has grown more than just his mane. A 6-foot-1, 220-pound redshirt sophomore, he’s gained in size since he walked on as a speedy safety three years ago. He’s gained a scholarship, too, along with starter status at Mike linebacker and entrance into UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

He’s on his way to class now, but first, he makes a quick stop at Lenoir Hall. Chick-fil-A for breakfast — his favorite.

He takes a seat at a table close to the registers, setting down a box of chicken minis, a chicken biscuit and a cup of water.

“I think we’re going to go to a bowl,” he says a couple of minutes later. “I think we can win the next three.”

The Tar Heels had won three games in a row already, and would go on to defeat Pittsburgh 34-27 on Saturday, moving them one win away from eligibility. Schoettmer has been looking at bowl projections online — there’s one that has UNC pegged for the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., where the Tar Heels lost to Missouri 41-24 in his redshirt season.

“I don’t want to go back to Shreveport,” Schoettmer says, laughing. “That was a miserable trip.”

He ingests his chicken in a matter of minutes and then begins a much shorter trip across campus.

His seat is waiting. Kickoff’s at 10 a.m.

Taking care of business

F of x equals two times the natural logarithm of x, all over x.

Find the derivative.

That’s the first hurdle Schoettmer faces on this Wednesday morning. He’s seated in the fourth row of Math 152 — business calculus — in a tiny classroom tucked away in Phillips Hall. It’s a review day for test No. 3 of the semester, and teaching assistant Joe Seaborn passes out a sheet of review problems — the kind that take an entire chalkboard to solve.

How did tests No. 1 and No. 2 go?

“They were all right,” Schoettmer says, a grin slowly stretching across his face. “They were tough.”

The third test is scheduled for Friday, but Schoettmer won’t be able to take it then. He’ll be on his way to Pittsburgh and will have to take it Monday morning before class instead.

Travis Riley, who sits to Schoettmer’s right, will have to do the same. He’s a former UNC tailback who became an undergraduate assistant after ACL and MCL tears ended his playing career. Riley and Schoettmer are both in the business school and have three classes together. They say they’re getting sick of each other, but they don’t mean it.

“He always gives me a ride to class,” Riley says. “So as people go, he’s hard to beat.”

They tackle the worksheet together. Riley pulls out his black Texas Instruments calculator while Schoettmer opens his MacBook and pulls up an online version of the class textbook. He scrolls through until he finds a section on the differentiation of logarithmic functions. There’s some trial and error, but Schoettmer and Riley work through the problem and move on.

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The class lets out just before 11 a.m., giving Schoettmer a sizable break before his next class at 12:30 p.m. He starts back toward Kenan Stadium, and as he crosses South Road he comes across the familiar face of Allen Champagne, a sophomore defensive lineman from Montreal, Quebec.

A Morehead-Cain scholar, Champagne’s self-taught English is thickly accented as he greets Schoettmer with a tussle of the hair.

“Look at that flow!” Champagne says, before walking off toward a class of his own.

A hairy proposition

It began with a $100 bet.

The competition? Former UNC placekicker Casey Barth.

The inspiration?

“There was a movie out — I don’t remember what it was — but the main character had long hair,” Schoettmer said. “We thought he was awesome.”

The bet was simple: the first person to cut his hair loses. The conditions were set in June 2012. Barth lasted until April, and Schoettmer, despite winning the bet, has kept his hair untouched.

Its unbridled length invites comparisons to Clay Matthews, an equally longhaired, blonde linebacker for the Green Bay Packers and Schoettmer’s personal football hero. Schoettmer has a picture of Matthews in his bedroom at home, and he wears a Packers wristband in honor of him. Defensive end Kareem Martin joked that Schoettmer tweets at Matthews all the time — with no luck at actually getting him to reply.

By and large, though, Schoettmer said he’s maintained the hair because he believes it makes him more noticeable. Unique.

“I think of it as a branding issue, a marketing issue for Jeff that kind of distinguishes him,” said Steve Schoettmer, Jeff’s father. “The people kind of recognize him not only for his good play but for the kid that has the blonde hair sticking out of the helmet. In today’s branding world, Jeff has set himself apart.”

Looking back, Steve Schoettmer said his son could’ve benefited from better marketing during high school at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, Texas. He played baseball and basketball in addition to football, leaving him little time in between to focus on recruiting. By the time of his college decision, he was looking at walking on at Wake Forest, where his mother played tennis and brother played baseball; Duke, where his father played linebacker; or UNC, where then-coach Butch Davis expressed the most interest.

The Tar Heels ultimately felt like the best fit, and despite an NCAA investigation and two coaching changes, Schoettmer said he still feels that way. This season is his first as a starter and first under scholarship after he shifted from safety to linebacker last season. He leads the UNC defense in tackles with 76 — 10 more than anyone on the roster — and he’s done it all with his now-trademark hair.

“Given all that,” Steve Schoettmer joked, “I certainly wouldn’t mind him trimming it up.”

A midday rest

His head digitized on a Samsung LCD screen, voice blasting through tiny speakers, ESPN’s Skip Bayless makes yet another outlandish comment — the type of comment for which he’s become known.

“As a Cowboys fan,” he says, “I want my team to lose the rest of their games.”

“What?” Schoettmer says in disbelief, more amused than angry.

He isn’t a Bayless fan, but he is a diehard Cowboys fan and a proponent of anything related to Dallas — his birthplace.

It’s a little after 11 a.m., and Schoettmer is sitting in a large leather chair in the UNC football player lounge, decompressing in between classes. Redshirt senior cornerback Terry Shankle soon takes the seat next to him. Schoettmer asks if he caught the Kentucky-Michigan State basketball game the night before and, specifically, if he saw Kentucky freshman Julius Randle put up 27 points.

“He’s from Dallas, you know,” Schoettmer says. It’s a crib call — some hometown bravado. But Shankle isn’t buying it. He argues that Randle just went to school in Dallas, that that shouldn’t count. They continue to go back and forth.

The lounge fills with more bookbag-wearing players as the two banter. It’s a spacious room, lined with seven LCD television screens. There’s a ping-pong table in one corner, shuffleboard and pinball in another. A couple of players gather to play pool. Others grab a seat on one of several leather couches. One player is sprawled across a couch on his stomach, bookbag still on, napping.

“I’m like Stephen A. Smith,” Shankle says finally, pausing for a second. “You’re Skip Bayless.”

At 11:30 a.m., Schoettmer heads to a dining hall in the next room over, grabbing a quick cheeseburger and a bowl of fruit. He has time before class starts to stop briefly in the linebackers’ position room, log into the computer and play film from Tuesday’s practice and film of Pittsburgh’s offensive schemes.

“Well, I messed up on one play,” he says after he’s done.

He knows he’ll hear more about that later.

The reward

Andre Williams, UNC’s director of student-athlete development, approached Schoettmer on the last day of training camp in August.

He told him he needed to meet with head coach Larry Fedora in his office.

“At that point I knew what he was talking about,” Schoettmer said. “And I went up there, and Fedora was just like, ‘Congratulations. You earned it, your scholarship.’

“It was a moment I won’t forget.”

Schoettmer could sense that the offer would be coming as he spent all but the first couple of days of camp practicing with the first-string defense. And in truth, Schoettmer and his father had been expecting it even before camp broke. Schoettmer appeared in all 12 games of the 2012 season, often entering the game on third-down snaps. Steve Schoettmer said he was told that UNC’s NCAA sanctions — and the reduction of scholarships that came with them — played a role in the wait.

“But for those penalties, given the amount of playing time that he had, he should’ve been available for a scholarship right off the bat,” Steve Schoettmer said. “Having said that, I was obviously thrilled. It really validated Jeff as a football player at North Carolina.”

It certainly lends a helping hand academically as well as Schoettmer goes through UNC’s prestigious and rigorous Kenan-Flagler Business School — something Steve Schoettmer spoke about with pride. He said he hopes his son is well on his way toward finishing a master’s degree by the time his collegiate playing career is over.

Schoettmer himself, if the NFL turns out not to be an option, said he hopes to find a career in the business side of sports.

As he’s gone through both the business program and the football program, he’s drawn praise for his work ethic and drive.

“It’s really tough — just being a walk-on, period,” Kareem Martin said. “You’re on the football team. You have to do everything that scholarship players do without the scholarship and the financial aid and everything.

“To still be a great student, which he is, it’s just tough.”

Final lesson

Schoettmer’s Chevy Tahoe pulls into the Rams Head parking deck at 2 p.m.

He and Riley just finished their second and final class of the day, Business 406 — marketing. The class met in a business school auditorium as a guest speaker went through the intricacies of selling products in an increasingly digital world.

Now, Schoettmer needs to prepare for a different lecture — from professor Larry Fedora.

Back at the Kenan Football Center, he walks into a 100-seat auditorium as hip-hop music blares and his teammates chatter excitedly. In the back of the room, former tailback Giovani Bernard’s game-winning punt return against N.C. State is memorialized in larger-than-life wallpaper. In the front of the room stands Fedora. A projector screen hangs behind him, just below a jumbo-sized recreation of the coach’s motto: “Smart. Fast. Physical.”

Fedora speaks, rather yells in animated fashion, going through the special teams schemes for Saturday and breaking down film of Pittsburgh’s tendencies.

At 2:40 p.m., the players divide into position groups as Schoettmer returns to the linebacker room. At first glance, it could be mistaken for a tiny classroom — if not for the X’s and O’s on the whiteboard and the pictures of linebacker alumni hanging on the walls. Each player holds a packet of paper — a defensive game plan for Saturday — as linebackers coach Ron West discusses each play and formation.

West shows film from practice, and when he points out Schoettmer’s mistake, as Schoettmer knew he would do, the linebacker nods his head in acknowledgement.

After nearly an hour goes by, the players funnel into elevators, heading down to the locker room to prepare for practice — where a couple of hours stand between them and freedom. Schoettmer is among the last to step in a crowded elevator, his golden locks distinguishing him from the pack.

Wednesday has been an easier day than most.

Now, it’s finally time to sweat.