North Carolina’s defense still a work in progress

Tar Heels have shown improvement the last six quarters

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2012 

  • Saturday’s game Idaho at North Carolina
  • More information 3:30 p.m., FSCR

— Sylvester Williams and his teammates on the North Carolina defense were hurting. It was halftime of the Tar Heels’ eventual 39-34 loss at Louisville, and the Tar Heels had just allowed 360 yards of offense and 36 points.

Louisville’s offensive skill players had been allowed to run wide open, uncovered. The Cardinals broke through wide open holes in the Heels’ defense, or sometimes ran through UNC’s futile tackling attempts.

“Giving up that many points, it hit a lot of us deep,” Williams said.

Including members of the coaching staff.

“I think we should have all been embarrassed by the way we played the first half,” Vic Koenning, the Heels’ associate head coach for defense, said of the Louisville game. “And it was simple stuff.”

But the Tar Heels made it look difficult. Since, though, they’ve made it look, well, simple. After surrendering 360 yards and 36 points in the first two quarters at Louisville, the Heels’ defense has been nearly impeccable during the past six quarters.

During that stretch, which includes the team’s 27-6 victory against East Carolina on Saturday, UNC has allowed 321 yards of offense and nine points. Two primary questions have emerged after the Heels’ dramatic defensive turnaround.

The first: which is the real UNC defense?

“I feel like it’s the past six quarters,” Williams said. “What you’ve seen in the second half of the Louisville game. And I feel like that’s us as a defense – very dominant. I feel like we’ve got a chance to be dominant for the rest of the year.”

And the second question: What changed? How did UNC go from the ineptitude in the first half at Louisville, to helping fuel a spirited second-half comeback there, to keeping ECU out of the end zone in Kenan Stadium last weekend?

Larry Fedora, the first-year UNC coach, said on Wednesday it wasn’t a matter of changing schemes or play calls, but instead a matter of changing mentalities.

“We had an attitude adjustment,” Fedora said. “That was about it. Really, scheme-wise, we didn’t do anything differently. When we went back and looked in the second half [at Louisville] … it was the same calls.”

The Cardinals gashed UNC’s defense in the first half of that game, when they averaged 9.7 yards per play. The Heels held Louisville to 3 yards per play during the second half, and then ECU didn’t manage more than 4.9 yards per play in either half on Saturday.

Like most things in Fedora’s first season, the defense remains a work in progress and in a state of constant evolution. The playbook has been adjusted. Plays have been “scrapped,” as Koenning described it, depending on how much the players can handle in their first season of running the new 4-2-5 scheme.

There have been bright moments – plenty in the season-opening 62-0 victory against Elon, and during the past six quarters – and darker ones, like when the Heels allowed Wake Forest a 93-yard, game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter of a 28-27 defeat. The players are still learning. Coaches, too.

“They’re not just completely sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re supposed to be doing it,” Koenning said. “They’re so new. I mean, there’s so many new dadgum guys playing, that it’s an everyday struggle.”

If confidence is an issue, as Koenning said it was, the Heels might stand to gain some this weekend when they host Idaho. The Vandals will enter Kenan Stadium with one of the worst offenses in the nation.

Through four games, Idaho ranks 118th nationally in rushing offense, 103rd in total offense and 115th in scoring offense. The Vandals also suffer from turnover woes, and rank 114th nationally in turnover margin.

Not that Fedora has paid much attention to those rankings. He continues to emphasize UNC’s need to focus on itself, and not its opponent.

He said earlier this week that the Heels’ two losses were more than anything the result of self-inflicted miscues, many of which occurred on defense. There were blown coverages and missed assignments during Wake Forest’s game-winning fourth-quarter drive, and more of the same – a lot more – in the first half at Louisville.

“A lot of guys have been a lot more focused these last couple of weeks,” Williams said. “And I can just kind of tell in the demeanor of the guys that everybody is excited and pumped because we executed the defense the right way the last game, and we saw how effective it could be.”

The margin, though, remains small for the Tar Heels. After the loss at Wake Forest on Sept. 8, Koenning and the defensive staff removed some plays after the Heels struggled to identify one of the Deacons’ offensive packages.

The playbook now, Koenning said, is “about as simple” as it can possibly be. The focus, then, has returned to mastering the basics – both physically and mentally. Koenning said the coaching staff planned to show the defense video of boxers preparing for fights. He hopes there’s a lesson to be learned about intensity and focus.

“How they get in there just to go to battle and what kind of intensity level and what kind of confidence they’ve got to have to go into a prizefight,” Koenning said. “Because if we don’t play at our highest level, we’re going to get scored on and run by and thrown by by every school.

“East Chapel Hill (High School) would put 30 on us if we don’t play our best.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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