North Carolina held its annual football media day on Wednesday. Players and coaches gathered for pictures, first with their position groups then with the entire team. They posed. They smiled. Some of them met with media members afterward.
Media days, strange as it may seem, never produce all that great of material for the media. (And that's anywhere, not just at UNC.) The setting isn't all too great for probing questions. The answers, some of them delivered behind a podium, are often rife with cliches. A lot of it is noise.
Not all of it, though. Some of the words are worth remembering. Gene Chizik, entering his first season as the Tar Heels' defensive coordinator, offered some of those during his 10-minute session with reporters. At one point I asked him what he wanted his defense to be known for.
Keep in mind UNC's defense a season ago was known for a lot of things – none of them good. It was known for allowing big plays. For missing tackles. For being out of position. It was known, at times, for quitting. That's why Vic Koenning, the man formerly in charge of the defense, is no longer around.
Chizik's arrival was celebrated among UNC fans and rightfully so. He might have been the best defensive coach available for hire – along with the fired Florida coach Will Muschamp – and if Chizik wasn't the best coach for hire he was at least in the conversation. The task ahead, though, is formidable.
Chizik on Wednesday spoke of what he envisions and he spoke about how to turn those visions into reality. And when I asked him what he wants his defense to be known for his answer came quickly: “Physicality,” he said. And then, after a short pause: “Period.”
“Because you can’t win games, in this day and age, you can’t win games saying that, ‘Well we play X amount of spread offenses so we’re going to finesse them and bring them down in space,'” Chizik said. “No, that’s part of being physical. That’s part of putting yourself in the right spots. Everything in this game is about physicality. I have not ever been around a good defense that’s not physical.”
The implication there is that it's impossible for a good defense to lack physicality. Is it possible for a bad defense to also be known for its physicality? Probably. But the opposite can't be true: A defense can't be good unless it's also physical.
The Tar Heels weren't known for their physicality on defense last season. They rarely generated much of a push up front. Stopping the run, or even slowing it down, was a problem. So was pressuring quarterbacks. How many times did the defense simply seem to part, forming large seams?
Chizik addressed that, too, while he spoke of physicality.
“Everything starts with the point of attacks up front,” he said. “Everything starts with the fits of the linebackers and where they’re supposed to be. The safeties fit off those guys. And everybody’s got to have a mentality of physicality.
“We point it out every day when it is and we point it out every day when it isn’t. And it either is or it isn’t. Anybody can look at a film and you don’t have to be a football expert to know that we’re playing physical (or) we’re not.
“Was the line of scrimmage knocked back, or was the line of scrimmage being set that starts to set the defense? So physicality in my mind is absolutely paramount if you’re going to change the mentality of the defense.”
UNC's defense should be better. You could almost say it has to be better, because it can't possible be as bad, or worse, than it was a season ago. But how much better? What's a reasonable expectation for improvement?
Chizik didn't have great answers for those questions, and how could he? The words came much more easily, though, when he thought about the characterstic he wants to define his defense.