CHAPEL HILL — Vic Koenning keeps an open Bible on his desk and speaks warily of pride.
“In the Bible,” said Koenning, the associate head coach for defense at North Carolina, “they say pride comes before destruction. So you try not to have pride.”
He is speaking about his role in the evolution of the 4-2-5 defense, which the Tar Heels will run in their first season under Larry Fedora. Koenning didn’t invent the 4-2-5, nor did he perfect it. And even if he had, he says, it wouldn’t be for him to say.
Yet he has run it with success at Wyoming and Troy, at Clemson and Illinois. And now he and Dan Disch, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, will together lead North Carolina’s transition to the 4-2-5, which might more than anything determine the success of Fedora’s first season here.
“Coach Fedora’s whole philosophy of football is attack, attack, attack,” Disch said. “ … So we’re going to attack, and we’re going to try to confuse people. Now, that doesn’t mean we will. But it means we’re going to try. We’re going to try to get after people, and dictate to them a little bit as opposed to them dictating to us.”
Why Fedora trusts 4-2-5
To understand why Fedora brought the 4-2-5 to UNC from Southern Miss is to understand why he initially wanted the defense. His first three Southern Miss teams won, but never more than eight games.
His offenses ranked 31st or better nationally. But the Golden Eagles’ traditional 4-3 defense never finished higher than 47th.
Fedora needed to make changes after the 2010 season, and he thought about which defenses gave him the most problems as an offensive coordinator. It was the 4-2-5. Fedora searched for someone who could come to Southern Miss, install it and teach the Golden Eagles to execute it, all in one off-season.
He hired Disch, the linebackers coach under Koenning, then the defensive coordinator at Illinois.
In one season running the 4-2-5, Southern Miss jumped from No. 47 nationally in total defense to 29th. More impressive, the Golden Eagles ranked 10th nationally in yards per play allowed (4.61), after finishing 61st in 2010.
After finishes of 7-6, 7-6 and 8-5 in Fedora’s first three seasons, Southern Miss went 12-2 last season and won the Conference USA championship. Fedora credits one thing: the 4-2-5.
“That’s the reason we won a championship,” he said.
More speed, more plays
The UNC football offices provide evidence of how much has changed since the Tar Heels’ 41-24 loss against Missouri in the Independence Bowl last December. There are new pictures on the walls, and new people in those offices.
But that game wasn’t that long ago. Missouri used its spread offense to accumulate 513 yards.
“Where the 4-2-5 thing comes into it a little bit, is with the onset of the spread offenses, linebackers have become a little bit – I don’t want to say dinosaurs,” Koenning said. “But people find out what Missouri did to North Carolina in the bowl game was an example of what [happens] when you play with a bunch of linebackers.
“They’re going to find them and get the mismatches.”
Koenning and Disch didn’t have to start from scratch in installing the 4-2-5. The basic principles among all defensive schemes are similar enough, after all. But there are differences.
They first began to identify how UNC’s players could fit in their system, which uses two hybrid positions – a combination defensive end and linebacker, and a combination linebacker and defensive back.
“You’re getting rid of a d-lineman and a (strong-side line)backer,” Disch said. “And you’re bringing in a defensive back and a faster linebacker. So out of your 11 guys, you’ve got a little more speed on the field …
“It allows you to run to the ball versus the spread teams that throw on the perimeter.”
Added Koenning: “We want to play with as many fast guys as we can. Now, that being said, we run a lot of 3-4 stuff. A bunch.”
That’s because UNC will employ only three linemen: a nose tackle, a defensive tackle and defensive end. The other end of the defensive line will be home to the “Bandit” – a hybrid defensive end and linebacker.
Koenning coined that term, he says, when he was the defensive coordinator at Wyoming.
“Just thought that was pretty cool,” Koenning said of the name, which was homage to Wyoming’s Cowboys mascot. “And it helps you recruit guys. I mean, they all want to be a bandit.”
Koenning and Disch named the Tar Heels’ other hybrid position – the combination linebacker and defensive back – after arriving at UNC. Calling it a “Ram” fit in more ways than one.
Meet ‘Ram’ and ‘Bandit’
Last year, Dion Guy and Gene Robinson held traditional positions in a traditional defense. Guy was a defensive end. Robinson a safety. Now Guy is a bandit. Robinson is a ram.
In some ways, they are the faces of UNC’s defensive transformation.
“I feel like it’s more opportunity to make plays,” Guy said. “It allows people to fly around … (with) the addition from the defensive end spot going back, dropping back and bringing a defensive back down in the box, (there’s) just a faster guy at both levels of the field.”
The staff identified both as the most capable of fitting the hybrid positions. It’s not exactly a perfect fit, as neither player was recruited to play in this scheme.
But both say they have embraced their new roles.
“I was excited,” Robinson said, “because I feel like I play better closer to the line of scrimmage. So I felt like I’ll be able to gamble a lot more, where at safety I was deep and I couldn’t gamble too much because I’m the last man in the back. I can gamble (now), I can take chances and I can just play off instincts.”
Overall, the adjustment is ongoing. For Guy and Robinson, and the rest of the Tar Heels. Koenning estimates that the staff installed about 50 percent of the defense during the spring, and it likely won’t be until after the season that UNC installs the entire system.
Mishaps are to be expected. And depth will remain a concern.
Still, Koenning and Disch believe there are enough solid pieces. Sylvester Williams, who lost 30 pounds this offseason, is expected to be among the ACC’s best defensive tackles. Same for senior Kevin Reddick at linebacker, and Tre Boston, the junior safety, in the defensive backfield.
A year ago, those players ran a defense that struggled against non-traditional offenses. The spread offenses at Missouri and Clemson dominated UNC, as did Georgia Tech’s option. But the 4-2-5, Koenning said, gives the Heels “a ton” of versatility and the ability to switch seamlessly between the 3-4 and 4-3.
Against running teams, the bandit and ram likely will play closer to the line. Against passing teams, both likely will be farther back, providing the look of a 3-4.
“The (the 4-2-5) gives us a chance week-in and week-out to match up the way we think we need to,” Disch said.
Creating difficulty for QBs
By the end of spring practice, UNC’s new defense proved to be farther ahead than the team’s new offense.
While the offense finds itself, the defense might be most responsible for the Tar Heels’ success. Fedora, then, wouldn’t want to rely on any other kind of scheme.
He remembers studying the 4-2-5, and how some teams he studied – Clemson and Illinois, to name two – had the same defensive coordinator: Koenning.
“A lot of them were Vic’s, and what he was doing,” Fedora said. “Not everybody did it all the time, but you had teams that would sub to it and stuff. So why not? Why not go to it all the time? Because I think it creates some very, very difficult situations for a quarterback.”
Last season, his Golden Eagles returned eight interceptions for touchdowns, an NCAA record.
“A lot of that was attributed, I think, to just being real aggressive,” Disch said. “And taking chances and giving your kids a chance to make plays.”
More than anything, that’s what has made Fedora, Koenning and Disch believe in the 4-2-5: that its flexibility and versatility lead to more play-making.
Koenning and Disch still have much work to do before UNC opens Sept. 1 against Elon. They will decide, among other things, how quickly to continue the defensive installation, and which of two coaches – both of whom prefer to work on the sideline – will work from the press box on game days.
Koenning quotes that Bible verse, the one about pride and destruction, to describe how he and Disch should work together. He hopes both men forgo their own pride to work as one. In a different way, both are hoping to build a defense that will invoke pride, and result in destruction.