It was a scene that might have shown just how far the North Carolina secondary has come during the past year, one that illustrates the Tar Heels’ new standard.
It came after UNC’s victory at Pittsburgh last week. There were Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart, two cornerbacks who needed consolation after playing perhaps their finest college games. Lawrence had broken up four passes and Stewart three.
They had prevented a number of plays that, had they gone the other way, could have changed the momentum of the game, and possibly its outcome. Yet neither Lawrence nor Stewart found much satisfaction in this, their most productive combined performance.
“Those two guys may have had their best game this year, and they were both down after the game because they missed some opportunities for some (interceptions),” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said this week. “I mean, I like that. I like it.
“I had to get them out of that, but I like that they expect a lot out of themselves.”
There are many ways to measure the progression of UNC’s pass defense during the past year. Yards per game, yards per attempt, pass efficiency defense – all of those numbers are better, and significantly so, than they were a season ago.
Behind all the measurables and metrics, though, is a foundation that UNC began building last January, after the previous defensive coaching staff left and a new one, led by coordinator Gene Chizik, arrived. Chizik and Fedora soon hired Charlton Warren, an Air Force Academy graduate who had been the defensive coordinator there before spending last season as the secondary coach at Nebraska.
Under Warren, UNC’s defensive backs have shown the most improvement on a vastly improved defense. The rebuilding process, players have said, began with Warren breaking them down and reconstructing virtually every part of how they play their positions.
“He was relentless in his approach to getting us together and getting our technique right,” Lawrence, the junior cornerback, said of Warren.
“Relentless” is a good way to describe Warren, who earned the Air Force Academy football team’s “Mr. Intensity” award during his senior season. After his time at the academy, he earned an MBA then entered coaching in 2005 with the Falcons.
When Warren was deciding whether to accept UNC’s offer, he took a look at what he’d have to work with. He studied the Tar Heels on film and what he saw wasn’t pretty – all the blown assignments in pass coverage, the big plays allowed, the poor positioning.
But amid all of that, Warren said, he saw “a lot of guys that had a lot of ability.”
“Everything that happened to them bad, had nothing to do with talent,” he said. “Had nothing to do with height, weight and speed. It had everything to do with technique and fundamentals, in my opinion.”
The first day he worked with his defensive backs, Warren focused on the basics. It sounded elementary, the way he described it this week, but that’s only because the Tar Heels’ secondary had so much to learn – so much to rebuild after last season.
“Day 1 for me was about how to play the ball in the air,” Warren said. “When not to, when you can, when to play the hands. When to long-arm it and knock a ball down for a (pass breakup). When to use two hands and go for the pick.
“Because I saw a lot of times on film last year, they would use the wrong arm in reaching for the ball. Ball’s caught – score.”
One of the obvious changes since Warren’s arrival is cornerbacks are routinely in position to turn their heads in coverage and make a play on the ball. Even in those times when players were in good position last season – and those times were rare, in some games – they rarely, if ever, turned their head.
That approach, the old approach, proved disastrous for the Tar Heels. Opposing quarterbacks often placed passes right over a defensive player’s shoulder – if a defender happened to be there – and UNC allowed long pass play after long pass play.
Learning when to look back at the ball, and how to do it, exactly, was among the first lessons Warren taught his defensive backs at UNC. Warren has instructed his players to approach pass defense, in some ways, the way they would going after a rebound in basketball. The first step: Box out.
Or, in the case of defending a pass, be hip-to-hip with a receiver.
“You don’t ever go for that ball,” Warren said, “before you put that body in that guy and wall him off with your shoulder. No different when you’re playing the ball down the field.
“And if you can’t do that, you see what happened in Pittsburgh the other day where you long-arm and knock a ball down and you’re able to knock the ball out of the receiver’s hands.”
Warren’s approach contrasts radically with what his players had grown accustomed to in recent seasons. In years past, the entire secondary didn’t even meet in the same room for film breakdowns and teaching sessions. The cornerbacks met in one and safeties in another.
That changed when the new staff arrived. Players also had to adapt to Warren’s approach. He didn’t earn that “Mr. Intensity” award at Air Force for nothing.
“Last year, (assistant) coach (Dan) Disch, hats off to him, he’s a good coach – he’s more of a like a let-you-play type of coach,” Lawrence said. “It’s not like he doesn’t teach any technique or anything, but he’s more about making plays and (he and Warren are) kind of opposite.”
It was “frustrating” at times, Lawrence said, the adjustment from one hands-off position coach to another, in Warren, who makes his players repeat the same technique over and over, until they get it right.
Now, though, Lawrence and his teammates are the ones accounting for frustration – namely that of opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Two of Lawrence’s four pass breakups at Pitt came in the end zone. He nearly intercepted another pass that instead went as a pass breakup.
“He broke us,” Lawrence said of Warren, “and it’s paying off now. And I’m pretty sure all the guys are happy.”