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UNC’s defense ‘whooped’ the offense in its first scrimmage. Can it continue improving?

Mack Brown following the Tar Heels’ fifth practice: ‘Really, really pleased with overall effort and attitude’

North Carolina coach Mack Brown evaluates his team after their fifth day of practice on Tuesday, August 6, 2019
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North Carolina coach Mack Brown evaluates his team after their fifth day of practice on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

North Carolina’s defense appears to be coming along nicely.

The Tar Heels played their first scrimmage at Kenan Stadium last week, which was closed to the public, but UNC coach Mack Brown said the defense looked good.

He said the defense forced two interceptions and a fumble inside the 5-yard line. The offense struggled to score points.

“I think the separation yesterday, was the defense really whooped the offense,” Brown said last Sunday.

That’s good news for the Tar Heels. Brown has said the defense wasn’t good in the spring. The defense was dealing with a number of injuries to potential starters, including senior defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge and senior safety Myles Dorn. There were also some depth issues at defensive line and linebackers.

The Tar Heels were having to rely on inexperienced players on their second unit and third units.

But when the injured players returned in time for training camp, the production picked up. Strowbridge, who is 6-5 and 285 pounds, was among those who caught the eyes of the coaching staff. Strowbridge, who did not practice in the spring, had 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss last season. He’s poised for a breakout year.

“I think what was our biggest concern a month ago has become something I’m not as concerned about,” UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said.

Bateman said he feels good about his first unit, but he wants to continue to develop depth.

Bateman was one of the top defensive coordinators in the country while at Army. He said at Army, he didn’t have the best athletes, but he had players who were tough and played with great effort. In 2018, Army was ranked eighth in the country in total defense (295.5 yards per game).

Bateman likes his defenses to create havoc and disguise blitzes so you don’t know where they’re coming from. He preaches effort to his players at UNC now.

“Effort is non-negotiable,” Bateman said. “Knowledge is non-negotiable, so I’m going to set the standard as high as I can, and if they don’t meet that standard, then I’m going to demand they do.”

Last season, the Tar Heels ranked 105th out of 130 teams in total defense, giving up 447.6 yards per game. Opponents converted 43.8 percent of their third downs against the Tar Heels, which was 107th in the country.

Part of that was because its defense was on the field more often than its offense. UNC’s offense ranked 102nd in the country in time of possession, 28:15 minutes per game (out of 60).

With two weeks left before UNC’s season opener against South Carolina, senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said he wants to see the defense create more turnovers and stop the run. He said the leaders are trying to get the younger players up to speed.

But he likes where the defense is at this point in camp.

“As we get close, I think with a couple more weeks of preparation, I think we’ll have everybody on the same page ready to go,” Crawford said.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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