North Carolina

Gene Chizik rebuilding UNC defense ‘inch by inch’

Auburn head coach Gene Chizik celebrates after his team's touchdown in the second quarter of the Gamecocks game against Auburn at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, October, 1, 2011.
Auburn head coach Gene Chizik celebrates after his team's touchdown in the second quarter of the Gamecocks game against Auburn at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, October, 1, 2011. MCT FILE PHOTO

The numbers told Gene Chizik part of the story of how bad North Carolina’s defense was a season ago but they didn’t tell the complete story.

They didn’t describe effort late in games already long lost, and they said nothing of the technique – good or bad – of the players that Chizik, the man UNC hired to fix its defense, coached for the first time during spring practice.

More than anything, Chizik was curious to learn what the stats – as bad as any UNC defense had ever produced – didn’t show. And so when he arrived at UNC in January and began watching film of the Tar Heels’ defense, he focused not on the breakdowns but instead on how players responded to them.

“I don’t care about a game where they’re winning by 25,” Chizik said recently. “Everybody can play hard then. I want to know what it was like when it was 35-7 or 70 to whatever. I want to look and see what it looked like when things weren’t going well.

“Because to me that’s how you judge a player.”

Chizik’s first chance to coach what he inherited has come and gone. UNC completed its spring practice with a situational scrimmage last weekend in Charlotte, bringing an end to the start of a rebuilding project that is as daunting as any in the country.

Last in ACC

UNC’s defense a season ago was historically poor. The Tar Heels allowed at least 40 points six times, and gave up an average of 497.8 yards per game – more than all but one defense in school history.

UNC allowed 6.53 yards per play and gave up 22 plays of at least 40 yards – more than any other team from a major conference. The Tar Heels finished last in the ACC in total defense, last in scoring defense, last in pass efficiency defense, last in rushing defense and last in red zone defense.

Which is likely part of the reason why, when asked about the statistics from last season, Chizik shook his head and grimaced. He said then that the numbers can be misleading and, in some ways he’s right: the numbers didn’t always reflect how poorly UNC’s defense performed a season ago.

“If you look at a lot of the stats, they’re not flattering,” Chizik said. “But again, I’m not going to hang my hat on just the black and white stats because I don’t know all of the issues. I wasn’t here. I just know that based on the film that we saw and what we’re trying to do, it’s completely different in terms of philosophy.”

During the first three seasons of Larry Fedora’s head coaching tenure, the Tar Heels ran a 4-2-5 scheme – four lineman, five defensive backs – with two hybrid positions. Vic Koenning, who’d had success as a defensive coordinator at Illinois and Clemson, had moments of success in his first two seasons at UNC.

A new start

The defensive talent that Fedora and Koenning inherited in 2012, though, gradually dissipated, and the defense regressed. Fedora didn’t retain Koenning at the end of last season, and his departure was the first in a line of them.

Eventually, either through firings or resignations, every member of UNC’s 2014 defensive coaching staff left the school. Chizik, meanwhile, was the first to be hired.

His arrival at UNC was celebrated by supporters who’d long grown tired of erratic defensive performances under Koenning. When Fedora hired Chizik, the former Auburn head coach who led the Tigers to the 2010 national championship, Tar Heels fans reacted with a sense of excitement.

Chizik’s hire came with optimism and with high expectations. Externally, the hire energized fans but it also had the same effect internally, among the returning players.

“The first two weeks he was here we didn’t talk football, schemes, nothing,” Jeff Schoettmer, a senior linebacker, said last week. “It was just straight meetings about basically life lessons and what he expects out of us on and off the field.”

A foundation

Chizik is known for a no-frills, pressuring defense that uses a traditional 4-3 alignment. It’s a departure from UNC has used the past three seasons, and the change is likely to come with no shortage of challenges – among them recruiting suitable personnel for the style of play Chizik prefers.

For the most part, though, those he coached in the spring are what he’ll have to work with during the fall. Chizik spoke of “laying a foundation” during the spring, and using spring practices as an opportunity to establish the principles that he hopes will guide his defense.

“Everything was about let’s start at the ground floor and let’s decide what we want to be as a defense,” Chizik said. “Do we want to be physical? Do we want to be a pressure team? You know, what do we want to be? And then work every day to try to become that.

“And a lot of this game defensively is a mental thing. And it’s how you approach everything. And so we’re really trying to kind of change the mindset and get them to understand that the game defensively can only be played one way. And physicality is the name of the game.”

Under Koenning, UNC’s defensive players often avoided contact in practice. That has changed since the arrival of Chizik, who told his players that they would be “hitting a lot,” and hitting every time they practiced in pads.

Chizik said he also told his players they better become accustomed to boredom and repetition. That’s his preferred teaching style: repeating things – a play, a technique – so often that it becomes automatic, and repeating it until players can replicate it without error.

Not wasting time

Schoettmer, the linebacker, said the new defensive staff has brought “more attention to detail.”

“No stone unturned,” Schoettmer said. “They’re explaining everything from footwork to where our eyes go to where our hands go to everything. When he’s showing us a drill on film, he’ll show us a drill that we’re going to run in practice and then he’ll show us the exact same drill that happened in a game.

“So we’re doing things in practice that we’re going to do in the games. We’re not just wasting our time out here doing drills that don’t correlate to the game.”

The talk of change and how different things are is the norm when a new coach arrives. Few things excite fans more than a coaching change, and few things seem to energize a beleaguered group of players more a new direction – especially when it’s led by someone with Chizik’s background.

It’s early, though, and in some ways the real work – the hardest work – is yet to begin. Chizik said he installed between 60 and 65 percent of his defense during the spring, and he said above all he evaluated players based on their “care factor.”

That’s what he was looking for, mainly, when he evaluated film of ugly defensive performances from a season. In a lot of ways film from last season was worthless to Chizik, who is installing a completely new system. But it did provide a base – a starting point, and the work during the past several weeks grew from there.

“The amount of improvement we can have next year, I don’t know,” Chizik said. “We’re really looking at it as an inch by inch, which is kind of our motto defensively right now.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter