This has been among the most difficult seasons of Vic Koenning's coaching career – a season that has “not been the funnest year, obviously,” he said on Wednesday – yet Koenning expressed some optimism, some hope, that his North Carolina defense can still improve.
“Let me make sure I say this the right way,” Koenning said after practice on Wednesday, surrounded by reporters. “We're making progress.”
Then he referenced several young UNC players who have showed plenty of potential recently: freshmen linebackers Cayson Collins and Tyrell Tomlin. Freshman Allen Artis, a defensive back. Nazair Jones, the redshirt freshman defensive end.
Koenning went on.
“So we are making progress,” he said. “What happens sometimes, like last week, somebody makes a mistake, and (Miami was) good enough to take a not hitting the gap right to a 90-yard run. Then it doesn't look like you're making progress. But in reality we are.”
He was talking about Duke Johnson's 90-yard touchdown run, which was the longest run any Tar Heels defense has allowed – ever. It has been that kind of season for UNC, which has set record after record for defensive futility.
Most points allowed in a game? Did that in that 70-41 loss at East Carolina. Most yards allowed in a game? Did that in the same game, allowing a still-somewhat-unbelievable 789 yards to the Pirates.
Yes, part of those baffling statistics can be attributed to UNC's pace on offense. The Tar Heels play quickly, and when they're not getting first downs or scoring – as they sometimes weren't as ECU – it leaves more of a chance for the defense to give up a lot of yards and points.
But still. Only four defenses in the country are allowing more yards per game that UNC, which has given up an average of 510.3 yards. The Tar Heels rank 116th nationally in yards per play allowed (6.43).
UNC took a step forward defensively in that victory at Virginia two weeks ago, where the Tar Heels allowed 5.27 yards per play – its second-best showing in a conference game – but then it was two steps back, at least, at Miami. And now comes three games – against Pitt, Duke and N.C. State – against offenses that all rank among the top half of the ACC in yards per play.
No, the offenses at Pitt, N.C. State and Duke aren't as good as the ones at, say, Florida State or Miami, which leads the ACC, after that thumping against UNC, in yards per play. But these are good offenses, ones that could look very, very good against the Tar Heels' beleaguered defense.
That UNC is in this position – one of the worst defenses in school history, and one of the worst defenses in the country – can't bode well for Koenning's job security. The final three games, and a bowl game beyond that, perhaps, could go a long way toward determining whether he's back for another year, or whether Fedora decides to take the defensive leadership in a different direction.
Asked what he needed to see during the final one-fourth of the season to remain confident in the direction of the defense – confident in Koenning – Fedora said, “Just improvement.”
“Just improvement each week,” Fedora said. “I mean, that's all. We know we've got to play better. But we've got to – I mean, coming out of last week, we've got to play better in all three phases. But yeah – I need to see progress in all three phases compared to where we were last week.”
To his credit, Koenning sounded more hopeful than he has at other points this season. At times, he has sounded defeated. He took a more defiant tone on Wednesday.
“I turn around and look at this building here, it's made out of bricks,” he said. “It took a long time before it started taking shape. For a long time they were putting bricks up and it just – you didn't know what it was. And then finally it started taking shape and it was towards probably the end of its construction. So that's as good of an analogy as I can make.”
No, this hasn't been “the funnest” year, Koenning said. He said he hasn't gotten much sleep.
But, he said, “My faith is stronger now than it's ever been, because I've had to hang a lot of it on that.” He has faith, he said, that the defense is making progress.