CHAPEL HILL — Vic Koenning is a religious man, one who quotes scripture and keeps a large Bible in his office inside the Kenan Football Center at North Carolina. And so perhaps it was to be expected that Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for leading the Tar Heels’ defense, treated his regular gathering with reporters earlier this week as a kind of confessional.
Koenning’s defense last Saturday allowed more than 600 yards during the Tar Heels’ 55-31 defeat against East Carolina. It was the latest in a long line of dreadful defensive performances dating to last season, and Koenning sounded like a man searching for answers and atonement.
“I’m sure coach (Larry) Fedora is beyond frustrated,” Koenning said. “I’m sure the fans are. No one (is) more embarrassed and upset about (the defensive performance), I promise you, than us. I wish there was something I could redo or undo or make do. That’s the way it is.”
Before the meltdown against the Pirates, there had been hope. The week before, the UNC defense played well enough to give the Tar Heels a chance at Georgia Tech.
It was a performance Koenning appreciated. He took no solace in the defeat at Georgia Tech. But in it, he found reasons for optimism.
“(I was) encouraged (that) we finally played hard,” Koenning said. “We played with reckless abandon, and we showed something that we hadn’t really shown much of. And then all of a sudden, seven days later, six days later, it was like, boom – the whole other side of it.”
Against ECU, the Tar Heels couldn’t stop the pass. They couldn’t stop the run. At times, it looked like they were playing shorthanded. And on one play, they actually were.
With about five minutes remaining in the second quarter, ECU ran a play against nine UNC defenders. One player mistakenly ran off the field. Another didn’t make it in time to replace Norkeithus Otis, who temporarily left because of an injury.
The Pirates gained 26 yards on the play, which symbolized UNC’s overall ineptitude Saturday.
“We’ve tried to correct Norkeithus,” Koenning said of Otis, whom Koenning said should have stayed on the field and waited for the trainers instead of hobbling off. “And the other guy isn’t going to be put in that situation anymore because he’s going to be standing on the sideline.”
That was just one play, though. ECU ran 100 more, usually with success.
Koenning had difficulty explaining the breakdowns, but he spoke about them bluntly. He criticized his players’ ability to make tackles, despite being in the proper position to make them. He criticized the defense’s lack of leadership.
Maybe part of the problem is youth, Koenning said. The Tar Heels are reliant on some inexperienced players. Maybe part of the problem is immaturity, he theorized. Either way, a quarter of the way into his second season on staff, he expected UNC’s defense to be much farther along.
“There’s not very much leadership right now,” Koenning said. “We’re missing (Kevin) Reddick and Sly (Sylvester Williams) and those guys badly. And so there’s nobody from within pulling up. So it’s like when you try to move a couch and you get on one end of it to push and the front leg sticks. You get to the other end and you pull and the back leg sticks. You’ve got to have someone pushing and someone pulling.”
Koenning said he pushes plenty. He questioned whether his players are doing enough pulling.
He used an example from practice on Wednesday. During the two-minute drill, an end-of-practice staple, Koenning put a new player at a new position in the defensive secondary. The player made a mistake, an obvious one in a basic coverage, and Koenning said none of his teammates corrected him.
“There were three or four other guys back there in the secondary that should have been trying to help him,” Koenning said. “And nobody said anything. So that type of stuff is what I’m talking about. … Somebody’s got to step it up and be a leader.”
These are perilous times for the defense, which Fedora expected to be much better this season. The performance against ECU suggested that the Tar Heels could be worse.
There are voids in leadership and playmaking and even in grasping the basics of lining up with enough players. And behind it all is Koenning, who said earlier this week that the mess “is my responsibility, and we’ve got to find a way to fix it.”
He has been trying for a while now, though. Jabari Price, the UNC cornerback, said earlier this week that the defense took “two steps forward” at Georgia Tech, but then “four steps back” against ECU. That’s how it has gone – incremental progress wiped away by regression.
And so Koenning’s fight, one he has been waging for a while, continues. He described it well on Thursday.
“Every play in practice, I’m fighting somebody to go to the ball harder, or to focus more,” he said. “So it is like I’m in a fist fight with whoever the heavyweight champion is every day, just trying to get these guys to do the right things and do it as fast and hard as they can.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter