This was Vic Koenning, the man most responsible for coaching the North Carolina defense, when asked on Wednesday what his focus was this week, what the defense had been working on after that 70-41 loss last weekend at East Carolina: “Tackling.”
And then he said it again: “And tackling.”
He said it bluntly and honestly, sincerely, the way Koenning always says these kinds of things. Those of us who have covered the UNC football team the past three years have come to appreciate speaking with Koenning because, while it’s not always uplifting conversation, it is, usually, real conversation.
Koenning doesn’t gloss over things. He doesn’t try to pass off a ragged piece of flank steak as filet mignon. Sometimes he seems angry. Sometimes frustrated. Sometimes, a little sad. Koenning is honest, though. He’ll tell you something stinks when it stinks.
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So about the Tar Heels’ defense. Last weekend in Greenville it allowed a school-record 70 points and a school-record 39 first downs and a school-record 789 yards. Down there on the sideline, watching it all, Koenning looked exasperated.
He shook his head. He paced the sideline, hands on his hips and head down. Sometimes he merely stood there, just looking shocked. Afterward, he said he felt a bit helpless. There was nothing he could do, he told reporters, to help his players. Not in that moment, anyway.
This week, then, has been about figuring out a way to help. It has been about trying to put the pieces back together, if they can be put back together, after what was, statistically, the worst defensive game in school history.
What happened on Saturday? What has been happening this season? The Tar Heels rank 123rd nationally in yards allowed per game. They have forced a lot of turnovers, and played well in short moments but, overall, the defense has played poorly.
“We’re missing tackles at a 30, 40 percent clip,” Koenning said. “And there weren’t any plays (at ECU) we didn’t have somebody there, technically, and we just – we weren’t able to tackle people in space, and we made it hard on the guys in the back end.”
Koenning described things in a technical sense. UNC played a lot of man coverage on Saturday because he knew how good the Pirates were against a zone. So the Tar Heels tried to get up close to receivers. But the decision to play man led to an inability to stop the run.
The problem there, Koenning said, was “we just had guys lose gaps.” The players on the defensive line didn’t – couldn’t – keep their responsibilities up front. The players behind them faltered, too, and even if the Tar Heels were in a position to make a play, they rarely did.
“We missed too many long runs and too many plays – it can’t happen,” Koenning said. “So we’re tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling.”
He said it seven times: Tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling, tackling.
“And then fitting our gaps,” Koenning said. “Two biggest things that we felt like that we’ve got to get better at with our gap integrity – who’s got what gap, stay in that gap, and that’s your job. And then missing tackles.”
There weren’t as many of those last weekend as there were when the Tar Heels narrowly escaped with a victory against San Diego State on Sept. 6. That Saturday, UNC missed 34 tackles. Against ECU, the number dropped, Koenning said, though he couldn’t remember by exactly how much. Twenty-four, 26?
“Something like that,” he said. “I’ve moved on from that a little bit, and I don’t recall it. I mean, we’ve been grinding it pretty hard.”
One thing that might help the Tar Heels this week is that they’ll be back in their more “normal” base 4-2-5 defense. Last week, UNC primarily used six defensive backs and one linebacker. Travis Hughes, normally a linebacker, played the bandit position. He finished without a tackle.
And there’s that word again. It has been Koenning’s focus this week, the focus of his players.
Can the Tar Heels tackling woes be fixed?
“Well I think it’s something that you can work on to try to get better,” Koenning said. “So all we’re trying to do is do the best we can, and try to get these guys a little bit better and just try to improve. Because if we try to look so far in front we’re going to trip over what’s right in front of us. But we’ve got so far to go, obviously. And then the other part of the problem is the confidence factor now. And so we’ve got to deal with that. That’s part of it.”
It makes sense that the Tar Heels’ confidence is shaken after what happened last week in Greenville. The 70 points. The 789 yards. All those long plays allowed, and all those long walks back to the sideline after giving up another touchdown, and then another touchdown, and then another touchdown.
Koenning is down, too. Like he was after that 68-55 loss against Georgia Tech in 2012. And like he was after that 55-31 loss against ECU a season ago. And like he was during his three-year tenure as the head coach at Wyoming, where between 2000 and 2002 Koenning’s teams finished 5-29. There was no fourth season for him there.
During his walk into practice on Wednesday, Koenning said he was thinking about the last time he felt this way. This frustrated. This disappointed. This anxious to turn things around – this helpless, in some ways, about helping his players. He thought back to those days at Wyoming. He didn’t feel as low after Georgia Tech two years ago, or after ECU last season. But now, he felt things he hadn’t in a long time.
“But our job is … we have to achieve, regardless of the circumstances,” Koenning said. “And we’re trying to do right by these kids and by the fans and by everybody else. And I think I can tell you nobody cares more about these guys more than we do.
“Nobody wants them to do well more than we do. Nobody’s working harder, or has any more desire to get them to succeed more than we do. Because ultimately it affects us, too. But the most important thing is now for these guys. So we’re just working.”
He went on like that, describing work days with hardly a lunch break to divide the long mornings from the long afternoons. He described arriving in the office at 6-something in the morning, and leaving at 10-something at night.
“And this right now,” Koenning said to a crowd of reporters, speaking of his time spent with them, “is slowing me down from going back to start preparing for tomorrow. So we’re just trying to work our way out of this. I don’t know anything else to do.”
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .