Was it Lamar Jackson or mistakes that beat the Tar Heels?
Larry Fedora has seen this show before, if not an entire repeat of it then certainly the same beginning. Three years ago, back in what became the long, dark fall of 2014, the North Carolina defense played the kind of football that gets coaches fired – which is to say it played especially poorly.
The Tar Heels’ 2014 defense is remembered as one of the worst in school history, if not the worst. It led to complete turnover on the defensive coaching staff, and to the arrival of Gene Chizik, the high-profile defensive coordinator, and anointed savior, who has already come and gone.
Entering this season, Fedora’s sixth at UNC, Fedora expected the defense to be a reliable strength. He needed it to be, what with the departure of nearly every offensive player of significance from last season. Instead, UNC’s defense has been such a liability through two games that comparisons to 2014 aren’t unfounded.
Two days after his team allowed 705 yards during a 47-35 defeat against Louisville, Fedora spent a large portion of his weekly press conference answering questions about how, and why, things have gone so wrong defensively.
Statistically, UNC through the first two weeks of the season has been the worst major-conference defensive team in the country. The Tar Heels are allowing more yards per game (587) and per play (7.53) than any other Power 5 conference team. They entered the fourth quarter holding slim leads in each of the past two weeks, before California and Louisville combined to outscore UNC 34-13 in the fourth quarter of those games.
After the defensive debacle against Louisville on Saturday – Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson compiled more total yards (537) than any player ever had against a UNC defense – several UNC players cited communication problems as primary culprit in the breakdowns. Those who did, though, struggled to communicate what, exactly, they meant with such statements. Fedora on Monday attempted to elaborate.
“It means, first of all, based on a formation, you’ve got to communicate the coverage that you’re going to run with each other,” he said. “Based on splits, that adjusts some of the coverages and how you’re going to decipher those routes.
“And then in the middle of the route there’s communication that has to be made. If you’re dropping that guy to pick someone else up and a crosser is coming, you’ve got to let the guy next to you know so he’s picking the guy up. So there’s communication on quite a bit of it that we didn’t get done.”
Such problems would be troubling for any defense, and for any head coach. They’re especially troubling at UNC, however, because its defense is not comprised of inexperienced players attempting to execute a new scheme. It is comprised of veterans, many of whom are playing the same system for the second or third consecutive year.
Chizik, UNC’s defensive coordinator during the previous two seasons, resigned last February to spend more time with his family. Fedora promoted J.P. Papuchis, the linebackers coach who had been a part of Chizik’s staff since 2015, to defensive coordinator. The expectation was that the scheme would remain the same, and it has, but the Tar Heels have often looked lost defensively during the first two weeks.
Against both Cal and Louisville, UNC repeatedly left receivers running open down the field. Against Louisville, in particular, the Tar Heels faltered against basic, short crossing routes. In both games, UNC allowed two touchdowns of at least 40 yards.
Already, the Tar Heels have allowed four plays of at least 50 yards – half as many as they surrendered all of last season. Through the first two weeks only one team in the country, ECU, has given up more plays of at least 50 yards – and ECU dismissed its defensive coordinator, Kenwick Thompson, after a 56-20 defeat against West Virginia on Saturday.
Indeed, then, the Tar Heels really are playing the kind of defense that, if sustained, will have coaches preparing their resumes. The good news, for UNC, is that the season is still young. There is still time to address their deficiencies and fix them, and Fedora attempted to argue on Monday that the problems are “very easily fixable.” He insisted the same, at times, early in the 2014 season.
Then, as now, UNC spends Sundays re-tracing its steps from the previous game, and “correcting” the mistakes it made. That process consists of the coaches recreating the players’ mistakes, and explaining what should have happened, instead. Fedora conceded that, in hindsight, he would have entered Saturday with a more condensed defensive game plan.
“Going into it, I didn’t feel that way because we felt like they had it,” he said. “No problem. But they got exposed in some areas. Then guys start trying to do things outside of what they should be doing, trying to make up for it. Then that’s when you have real mistakes happen.”
That is what happened throughout the 2014 season, though Fedora avoided comparisons between then and now. Back then, internal strife and lack of leadership doomed the Tar Heels, as well, but Fedora said on Monday that he’s “not really concerned about the leadership part of it right now.” He is focused, instead, of identifying the problems, of which there are several, and fixing them.
That can be challenging enough for coaches who specialize in defense. Fedora rose through his profession on offense – first coaching wide receivers, then becoming an offensive coordinator before earning his first head coaching job. Though he’s the head coach, Papuchis and the defensive coaching staff are most responsible for the day-to-day details of the defense. That’s unlikely to change.
“They know what I expect,” he said. “I’m not going to go in there and say, hey, you need to run this or you need to try this or. But I go in there and I listen to every issue and I watch every snap … and we talk about what the problems were and why. Again, ‘why’ is the key word, for me. I want to know why it happened. Why something broke down. And as long as we know why, we can get it fixed.”
That is the hope, at least. After two games, though, UNC’s defensive problems seem awfully familiar.