One of the most obvious questions surrounding North Carolina at the start of the preseason is this: How far has the Tar Heels' defense come during the past year, from the start of learning a new scheme under a new coaching staff, to now?
A year ago UNC's defensive players were still in the relatively early months of a transition under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who was hired to fix a unit that was abysmal in 2014. Chizik taught the basics of his 4-3 scheme during a few weeks of spring practice in 2015.
And then that was it. The players reconvened at the start of preseason practice and went from there. Last season rarely, if ever, did Chizik and his defensive staff ask their players to do anything outside of the most basic parts of the scheme.
Now is the start of Chizik's second season as the defensive coordinator. His scheme is no longer a novelty. The playbook will no longer end with the most basic of packages. It will expand. The defense will grow.
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After practice on Tuesday, Chizik was asked to compare the defensive growth and knowledge in the past year – 365 days ago, give or take, to now. Here's how he answered:
“It's really kind of night and day, to be honest with you. The expectations that we have now, a year later … we would always have to keep grinding on the expectation, keep grinding on what it's supposed to look like and how you're supposed to execute and things of that nature.
“So now, they're very conscientious. They know when … it doesn't look good. They know when it doesn't feel right. And know when the expectation is not being met. And we don't have to say it. And I think some older guys are stepping up on defense, even though we don't have a lot of them.
“And they're really, really trying to take it over. So those are all good signs.”
The question now is how the enhanced knowledge translates on the field. Chizik will undoubtedly use an expanded playbook. There will be different packages, more creativity. Perhaps the most difficult part is over. Players better understand what they’re doing.