North Carolina wide receiver Erik Highsmith felt a definitive shift during the 2010 season as he converted from a rookie playing right away into a seasoned veteran for the Tar Heels.
Playing in all 13 contests for UNC a year ago, Highsmith recorded 25 receptions, which was fourth on the team, and he recorded 348 yards and three touchdowns, which each ranked second on the squad statistically.
Now, heading into his junior year at Carolina, Highsmith is glad about the chance he had this spring to step up and provide leadership to his younger teammates.
"Oh yeah, of course (I've been stepping up as a leader)," said Highsmith. "The coaches notice it. I try to talk and be vocal and lead by example out there and just do the right things and hopefully the other guys follow me."
"I just feel like I've been here 10 years now," Highsmith added.
"It's all natural to me. I don't have to think as much out there as my freshman year and last year. I just feel natural out there."
A big part of the spring season for Highsmith and everyone else within the Tar Heel offense was getting comfortable with the new man at the helm at quarterback, Bryn Renner.
Highsmith also says one particular area of emphasis for him this spring was improving his blocking---both from a technique and from a strength standpoint.
"I've really just tried to work on of course getting our timing down with Bryn---the receivers and all of us---and I've really tried to work on blocking," he said.
"I've been kind of weak out there the last two years, but I think I've gotten real better this year with blocking this spring."
"I think we started off kind of slow. We were fatiguing and getting winded. But it picked up," Highsmith added about UNC's spring season.
The rising junior out of Vanceboro (N.C.) West Craven says that there was a real spirit and energy in Carolina's practice sessions throughout the months of March and April.
"Our intensity every day is out of the roof. We challenge the defense in every drill, every period, everything. So they bring it and we bring it. But I think we're going in the right direction," he said.
Highsmith also gave a breakdown of how the North Carolina secondary shaped up during the 15 practice sessions they were allotted.
Having gone up personally against many if not most of them, Highsmith would have to be considered a foremost authority on how this particular group of Tar Heels are developing.
"They're going through a little stage right now. They just got Charles Brown back and Jonathan Smith," Highsmith said. "They're pretty good."
"They're veterans out there," he added about Brown and Smith. "They know how to cover our routes and stuff. They look pretty good. They look pretty solid."
There's a bunch of younger players that are vying for action in Carolina's two-deep rotation in the secondary, and Highsmith felt many of those players came along well during the spring.
"Those guys are getting better every day to me I think. Their technique. They're getting the game speed down and everything," he said.
"We've got a little advantage over them I think, the receivers, because we've been here longer than they have. And they kind of respect us in some way, but I think the sky is the limit for those guys."
This upcoming season is a tremendous opportunity for Highsmith to capitalize on the experience he's acquired while helping get the Tar Heels moving through the air.
He's aiming high for what he can potentially do.
"The team goal is of course to win the ACC championship and don't lose any games, especially to (N.C.) State or any rival teams," he said.
"My personal goals are to try to make one of the All-ACC teams, either second team or first team."