Gene Chizik puts UNC defense on notice – now can it improve?

UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is none too pleased with his unit’s performance three games into the season.
UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is none too pleased with his unit’s performance three games into the season. rwillett@newsobserver.com

These are some of the things that Gene Chizik, the North Carolina defensive coordinator, said about his defense on Tuesday after practice:

“I thought we performed poorly. That’s probably being very kind.”

“I thought we were soft, and I thought it was a very disappointing performance all the way around.”

“We’ve got to improve a lot this week or this game could get ugly.”

“Let’s not try to candy coat it.”

“It’s bad defense. And I’m not happy with it one bit, in the first three games.”

“I think we’ve played subpar and, again, that’s probably a kind statement.”

And on it went. There was this, though, from Chizik:

“My expectation is that our defense looks completely different next Saturday.”

That’s his hope. The Tar Heels on Saturday play against Pittsburgh at Kenan Stadium. It’s UNC’s first ACC game, the first game that means anything to its goal of repeating as ACC Coastal Division champions.

“The preseason is over,” Chizik said at one point during his post-practice diatribe on Tuesday. “And we need to show up and play with a defense that looks like it can compete in this league.”

Bad rankings

The Tar Heels haven’t done that. Not through their first three games.

One-quarter of the way into the season, UNC’s defensive rankings are as bad as Chizik’s rant indicated they are. The Tar Heels are 94th nationally in total defense (426 yards per game), 82nd nationally in yards per play allowed (5.58), 106th in rushing defense (216.7 yards per game) and 105th in yards allowed per rush (4.93).

Chizik and the defensive staff have placed a special emphasis, above all of those other numbers, on scoring defense. And UNC hasn’t been particularly good there, either. It’s surrendering 28 points per game, which ranks 79th nationally.

The scary thing for the Tar Heels is that they haven’t played against that great of an offense yet. Georgia can be one of the best rushing teams in the country, as long as Nick Chubb remains healthy, but after three games the Bulldogs are 66th nationally in total offense.

Illinois, which UNC mostly dominated during the second week of the season, is 89th nationally in total offense. And James Madison, which scored touchdowns on its first three drives on Saturday, is an FCS team with 22 fewer scholarship players than the Tar Heels.

Overall, Pitt’s offense doesn’t rank especially highly, either. But the Panthers will enter Kenan Stadium on Saturday with a rushing offense that ranks 21st nationally. James Connor, one of the best stories in college football, looks just about as good as he did before missing all of last season after his cancer diagnosis.

Quadree Henderson, a sophomore wide receiver, is averaging 13.9 yards per carry – the bulk (if not all) of that coming off of Pitt’s highly-effective jet sweep play. And Qadree Ollison, who ran for more than 1,000 yards last year, is still around, too.

And so Chizik’s post-practice words bear repeating:

“We’ve got to improve a lot this week or this game could get ugly.”

Limited production

There’s reason to believe UNC will be improved. At the least, the Tar Heels should be healthier.

Naz Jones, the junior defensive tackle who missed the James Madison game while recovering from a concussion, said on Tuesday that he’d “definitely be out there” against Pitt. Dajaun Drennon, the junior defensive end, is expected to make his season debut on Saturday.

Drennon missed the first three games while recovering from an undisclosed injury. In his absence, his defensive end position has been an early-season mess – one beset by additional injuries and, regarding Tyler Powell, strange attrition. Powell missed the first two games for reasons unexplained but is now back.

Tomon Fox, one in a cast of several who attempted to replace Drennon, is out indefinitely with an injury. Malik Carney, who filled in for Drennon in the season-opener against Georgia, has seen his role become reduced.

“We’ve been banged up, and we’ve been playing a lot of young guys,” Chizik said. “Those are truths. But again, if they’re on the field and we’re playing them we have an expectation that they produce.”

There hasn’t been much production. There has, instead, been the opposite of production.

Georgia ran for 289 yards against UNC, a figure the Bulldogs didn’t come within 120 yards of matching during their next two games. Illinois ran for 182 yards against UNC and then gained three yards rushing – total – last weekend against Western Michigan.

And now here comes Pitt, with its stable of backs and its jet sweeps and its mammoth offensive line (with all five linemen weighing more than 300 pounds) and its average of 239 rushing yards per game. It’s still early yet, way early, but on paper it looks like a mismatch – the Panthers’ rushing offense against the Tar Heels’ inability, so far, to stop the run.

Three weeks into the season, and already Chizik is fearful that things might get ugly.