The first viewing was bad enough, the one North Carolina players and coaches witnessed in person, in real time, in Orlando late last December. One play after another, the Tar Heels defense chased Baylor with futility.
When it ended, mercifully, UNC had allowed 645 yards rushing during a 49-38 season-ending defeat. No team had ever allowed more in the history of college football’s long postseason, and a long off-season began with UNC’s coaching staff searching for answers.
The primary question is simple enough: Can UNC fix its run defense? Can the Tar Heels, whose defensive strides a season ago propelled them to one of the best seasons in school history, find a way to avoid the kind of failure against the run that defined their final two games a season ago?
They’d be important questions regardless of the circumstances but they’re especially so now, with the Sept. 3 season-opener against Georgia looming. The Bulldogs’ running back duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom are recovering from injuries, is perhaps the nation’s best.
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The search for solutions began the way it often does in college football, with coaches gathered before a screen studying replays and looking for clues. Gene Chizik, the UNC defensive coordinator, said he has watched the Baylor game “eight to nine” times since last season ended.
Head coach Larry Fedora didn’t want to forget, either. He and his staff have tried to use the end of last season – the loss to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl and the defeat against Clemson in the ACC Championship game – the way a student might use a failed test as a study guide.
“We’re not embarrassed to say what happened,” Fedora said earlier this week. “I mean, we got our butts kicked. That’s what happened. And hopefully we’re going to learn from all of those experiences and we’re going to be much better because of it.”
After an 11-win season, which was UNC’s third in school history, Fedora has exuded confidence. He said recently that his offense could be more productive than it was a year ago, when it set records for points per game and yards per game.
He has embraced the high hopes for the Tar Heels’ secondary, which is the clear strength of the defense, and Fedora said his young, relatively inexperienced corps of linebackers is ready to fill a leadership void left by two departed seniors. And then there’s the defensive line.
And the run defense, in particular. It is, unambiguously, the greatest question facing the Tar Heels, who allowed 964 rushing yards – nearly 30 percent of what they allowed all of last season – in those defeats against Clemson and Baylor.
After studying those defeats as much has he has, Chizik has come to two primary conclusions. The first, he said, was that his defense simply encountered “a different level of play” – better, faster players in particular – during those final two games.
“The second part is, and the takeaway is, those become extremely physical games, regardless of whether they call themselves spread offenses or whatever they want to call themselves,” Chizik said. “They’re very, very physical football teams. So we didn’t match (that) physicality.”
Against both Baylor and Clemson, the Tar Heels failed to overcome their physical deficiencies. They were, to put it bluntly, manhandled at the line of scrimmage.
Great defense, it’s not real rocket science. It’s everybody doing their job. And what we preach to them is that bad defenses aren’t usually because you’re soft or – these guys are competitive. It’s usually because one guy, two guys, three guys on a call, aren’t where they’re supposed to be.
It didn’t help, either, that against Baylor the Tar Heels missed Naz Jones, perhaps their best interior defensive lineman. He didn’t play in that game due to an injury. Nor did it help that Jalen Dalton, UNC’s most promising defensive tackle, was a freshman in the early stages of his development.
In addition to the personnel shortcomings, UNC also suffered from breakdowns of its own doing.
“We got into the ACC championship game and I felt like our defensive execution was poor,” Chizik said. “It wasn’t about how many (defensive) calls we had or did not have, our execution was poor. So that is an example, again, of getting to that level, making sure those moments aren’t too big.”
Chizik intimated that there was a sense of arrival among his players – a sense of accomplishment. The season before, in 2014, UNC stumbled to a 6-7 finish. The season ended in disarray.
One year later, the Tar Heels were playing for an ACC championship. The defense, in the first season under Chizik, outperformed even the most optimistic of external expectations. At least, that is, until the final two games.
“Guys can’t think that it’s OK,” Chizik said, “just to arrive and go home and clap your hands and say that was a great season.”
And yet it was a great season, overall. The Tar Heels played in the ACC championship game for the first time. They set a school record with 11 consecutive victories.
To duplicate that success – to follow one great season with another – the onus is on Chizik and his defensive coaching staff, and their players, to improve against the run in the same way UNC’s pass defense improved a season ago. For starters, the coaches have already made a key personnel move.
Dalton and Jones, who are perhaps UNC’s best two interior defensive linemen, are likely to start next to each other on the line. They had been playing the same position after Dalton moved from defensive end to defensive tackle.
“I was decent at the end,” Dalton said, “but I was much quicker inside. So it was kind of a mismatch (for opposing offensive linemen).”
Another change will be an expanded defensive playbook in Chizik’s second season. He kept it basic during his first year and rarely, if ever, deviated from the simplest parts of his playbook.
Now it’s likely to expand, which would give the Tar Heels more options against better offenses. An expanded defensive playbook, Fedora said, could “tremendously” help his team’s run defense.
“Because you can go from just a seven-man front to eight-man fronts, seven and a half man front, all the different things that you’re going to need to be able to stop the run,” he said.
In moments last year, the Tar Heels proved their potential to defend the run. They held Georgia Tech, for instance, to 4.2 yards per carry – more than a full yard less than the Yellow Jackets’ season average.
In seven of UNC’s 12 games against FBS opponents, though, it allowed more yards per carry than what its opponents averaged during the season. Baylor averaged 7.7 yards per carry against UNC – nearly two yards better than its season average.
The Tar Heels remember well the misery of that performance.
“There was a lot of leaky yardage, where backs would run and get stopped in the hole but fall forward for five or six yards and pick up first downs,” said Cayson Collins, the junior linebacker. “And now we have certain things in that would prevent that.”
At least that’s the hope, anyway. Chizik enters his second season at UNC with a precedent for significant improvement against the run. When he was defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas, both teams improved their run defenses in his second season by at least one yard per carry.
Auburn in 2003 allowed FBS teams an average of 2.81 yards per carry after allowing 3.97 yards per carry in 2002. At Texas, the Longhorns went from allowing FBS opponents 3.69 yards per carry in 2005, Chizik’s first season, to allowing 2.21 yards per carry in his second season.
At both Auburn and Texas, the margin for improvement was smaller than it is at UNC. The Tar Heels allowed FBS opponents an average of 5.17 yards per carry last year.
“Great defense, it’s not real rocket science,” Chizik said. “It’s everybody doing their job. And what we preach to them is that bad defenses aren’t usually because you’re soft or – these guys are competitive. It’s usually because one guy, two guys, three guys on a call, aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”