UNC defense put on clinic against Elon

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 6, 2012 

  • North Carolina at Wake Forest Saturday, 3 p.m.

— At one point during North Carolina’s 62-0 victory against Elon on Saturday, Aaron Mellette, the Phoenix’s All-American receiver, caught a short pass near the sideline and fought for extra yardage. Vic Koenning, the Tar Heels’ associate head coach for defense, still remembered the play well on Wednesday.

“He kind of fought for some extra yards, and he got about seven or eight hats put on him,” Koenning said. “And I think after that play, he wasn’t as frisky as he was before.”

The moment pleased Koenning, who had been wondering how the UNC defense would perform in the first game of its new scheme. Heels coach Larry Fedora and his up-tempo spread offense received a lot of attention before its debut, but the Tar Heels on Saturday showed off their 4-2-5 defense for the first time. It put on a show, too.

Granted, Elon, an FCS school from the Southern Conference, was overmatched. UNC had advantages in size and speed at nearly every position. Still, the shutout was the Tar Heels’ first since 1999, and the performance had even Fedora – a stickler for details, like most coaches – hard-pressed to identify areas that needed improvement.

“No, not really,” Fedora said when asked if there was a glaring issue on defense that needed addressing. “You held them to 1.2 yards a rush. You created four turnovers. You did some really nice things.”

UNC allowed Elon to convert a couple of 3rd-and-long plays, as Fedora noted, but the defensive execution was nearly flawless in the first game. Koenning said when he examined the performance on film, he counted just six missed assignments – an exceptionally low number.

Thirty-five FBS teams played FCS teams during the first weekend of the college football season. Only five held their opponents to fewer yards per play than the Heels allowed against Elon, which punted 10 times and mustered just 2.43 yards per play.

Fedora acknowledged that evaluating both his offense and defense was difficult given the level of competition. UNC led 41-0 at halftime and began playing its reserves early in the third quarter.

“It’s hard to evaluate everything at that point,” Fedora said. “So what I’m looking at there, what I’m most focused on is how was our focus, and did we have the intensity level that we needed to and sustain it through the game – which is really hard to do in that situation. And I thought our guys did a really nice job with that.”

If anything, the performance against the Phoenix was a “confidence builder,” said Tim Scott, the UNC sophomore cornerback. The Tar Heels struggled defensively during the 2011 season, especially against teams that primarily used the pass.

Though a lower-division team, Elon ran the kind of offense that challenged UNC the most last season. The Phoenix moved into UNC territory just twice, and the Tar Heels generated a turnover on the only drive in which Elon seriously threatened to score.

“We just held our composure,” senior linebacker Kevin Reddick said when asked what most impressed him about the defensive performance. “Usually we’ll be beating some guys and let them score, or [give up] more points. So I was glad we kind of held that shutout together.”

Of course, UNC will endure far more difficult tests. They start on Saturday, when the Heels travel to Wake Forest. Under coach Jim Grobe, the Demon Deacons have often utilized with success a misdirection running game built on discipline and a precise blocking scheme.

“It’s going to be the first time we’ve seen two backs in the backfield on a regular basis,” Koenning said. “So the fits are different. Some of the things you do are different – and what they do such a good job of is play-action and max protect.”

About the success against Elon, Koenning said, “That game’s gone.” But he’s hoping the execution and focus he observed carries on.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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