CHAPEL HILL — Since coach Larry Fedora arrived, North Carolina has been known for its fast-paced offense and for its ability to score points in a hurry. Fedora promised that identity when UNC hired him in December 2011.
Throughout the past several weeks of spring football practice, the Tar Heels have taken on a different look. For once, the defense is outplaying the offense – a trend that’s likely to continue Saturday during UNC’s annual spring scrimmage.
Fedora’s coaching roots are on offense. He worked his way up as a position coach and coordinator to beomce a head coach. Still, he said earlier this week that it doesn’t bother him that UNC’s defense has often gotten the better of his offense during the past few weeks.
“I can’t win in the spring, myself,” Fedora said. “One side’s going to be better than the other side and so I’m never happy. They’re never equal. So you can’t win.”
In the long term, the defensive resurgence could be a win for the Tar Heels. They struggled defensively throughout each of Fedora’s first two seasons, though UNC’s defense played well at times during the second half of last season.
After a 1-5 start last season, UNC won six of its final seven games. The defense – which allowed 603 yards in an embarrassing loss against East Carolina, and 556 yards in a close defeat against Miami – surrendered more than 400 yards just once during the final seven games.
It was an encouraging finish, but with the end of the season came several key personnel losses. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin, who finished with 111/2 sacks last season, is now preparing for the NFL draft. So is safety Tre Boston, who allowed big plays but also made his share of them, leading the team with five interceptions.
UNC’s defense has a different look on the line, and in the defensive backfield, where a pair of promising sophomores – Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker – are likely to start at cornerback. Lawrence and Walker, both from Charlotte, took significant strides in the spring, Fedora said.
Their emergence is one reason UNC is optimistic aboutits defense, which ranked 64th nationally in yards allowed last season.
“We know there’s a lot of criticism that goes with the defense,” Lawrence said. “I mean, the offense can have a great day and the defense doesn’t, it just – it goes hand in hand. We both need to show up. But I feel like this year it’s a new start for us because I think we look faster. We’re playing more as a team, I think that’s what it really is.
“Not saying that the other years were individuals. ... I think it’s going to be like a fresh start for us and we’re going to see a new defense for North Carolina.”
Tim Scott, who has started at cornerback in each of the past two seasons, moved to safety to fill Boston’s void. UNC has also moved around some parts on its line, where senior Norkeithus Otis will be instrumental in replacing Martin.
Otis is moving from the hybrid bandit position – a combination of linebacker and defensive end in UNC’s 4-2-5 scheme. He was among UNC’s most productive defensive players last season. The difference now, Fedora said, is that he’s becoming a leader.
Identifying leaders was especially important for the defense, which lost the vocal Boston and Martin, who was quieter but inspired teammates with his work ethic.
“Kareem, he just showed us each and every day how to practice,” junior defensive end Justin Thomason said earlier this week. “But he practiced every day like he played in the game. So he just gave us that mentality.”
It hasn’t been surprising that the defense has had its way against the offense throughout the spring. On offense, UNC hasn’t identified the replacement for the James Hurst at left tackle, and the Tar Heels also are attempting to fill the significant void left by tight end Eric Ebron, who gave up his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
Junior Jack Tabb is expected to slide into Ebron’s position. Hurst’s replacement is far more uncertain. Bentley Spain, a freshman early enrollee from Charlotte who is among the most highly-regarded members of UNC’s incoming class, will have a chance to start at left tackle, but he has been slowed by an injury.
Injuries have made it difficult for Fedora to evaluate the offensive line. Fedora said he has received a good look at only “some of the guys.”
“But some of the guys we haven’t,” he said. “And we won’t know that probably until coming out of camp.”
What happens in preseason practice, which begins in August, will answer questions that remain unanswered about the offensive line, and which quarterback, Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky, will be the starter.
The spring game is about building momentum towards the real start of the preseason, and about offering glimpses – positive ones, Fedora hopes – of what’s to come.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter