UNC storylines: Gene Chizik and the revamped defense

Auburn head coach Gene Chizik yells instructions to his team in the first half of a NCAA college football game against Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Auburn head coach Gene Chizik yells instructions to his team in the first half of a NCAA college football game against Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) AP

To say North Carolina’s defense was bad a season ago would be like saying Usain Bolt is fast, that the Pacific is a decent-sized body of water, that Hemingway was a good writer. True statements, all of them, but they really don’t capture the magnitude of what we’re trying to say, do they?

To that end, it’s difficult to put into words how terrible the Tar Heels were defensively last season. The numbers – UNC allowed an average of 39 points and 497.8 yards per game and 6.53 yards per play – tell just part of the story. Those of us who were there to see it, who witnessed it, could tell more detailed stories.

Ones about receivers running open, not a defensive player in sight, or about running backs weaving their way through a minefield of missed tackles and poor pursuit angles. We could tell stories about a defensive line that rarely generated pressure and a secondary that often was comically out of position.

And we could tell stories – lot of stories – about Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator who greeted reporters with few answers but plenty of memorable lines. Koenning’s fate was clear enough as the season progressed, and when it ended it surprised no one when coach Larry Fedora told Koenning to find work elsewhere.

That led to the celebrated hiring of Gene Chizik, who probably was the biggest fish available – and the one Fedora believes is best suited to rebuilding (or simply building, given UNC’s defense never resembled anything close to a finished product last season) the Tar Heels’ defense. Chizik is best known for coaching Auburn to the 2010 national title, but he was a successful defensive coordinator, too.

The most obvious change Chizik is making is one of scheme. The Tar Heels ran a funky variation of a 4-2-5 defense under Koenning, and under Chizik they’ll run a more traditional 4-3 scheme. So, gone are the hybrid positions of “ram” and “bandit” and everything else about the 4-2-5, and here is something that should look at lot more familiar to casual football fans.

The question is how good UNC’s defense can be in its first year running a new scheme, under a new coach. The Tar Heels return seven starters, and there does appear to be some good, young talent, particularly on the line, where Nazair Jones could be an emerging force. Even so, we don’t know how good any of these guys are given they so often were put in a position to fail a season ago.

Chizik’s history doesn’t provide clear proof a quick fix is coming, either. In fact, I was surprised to learn just how mediocre – or worse – his defenses ranked during his two years as coach at Iowa State and his four years as coach at Auburn. Granted, as the head coach during those years he wasn’t as hands on with the defense as he would have been had he been the defensive coordinator.

Still, during those six years, none of his team’s defenses ranked higher than 60th nationally (2010 Auburn). At Iowa State, Chizik inherited a defense that ranked 102nd nationally, and the Cyclones improved to 65th in his first year. Then Iowa State ranked 112th nationally in total defense in 2008, before Chizik left for Auburn.

In five years as a major-conference defensive coordinator between 2002 and 2006, though, Chizik’s results were impressive. Three of his defenses (2003 and ’04 Auburn, and 2005 Texas) ranked among the top 10 nationally. At Texas and Auburn, though, Chizik inherited already-strong defenses, ones far better than what he’s inheriting now.

Expectations are high for Chizik, and rightfully so. There’s a reason his arrival has been celebrated, a reason he might have been the most highly regarded defensive coach available for hire. Yet the task is formidable. The good news for UNC is that the Tar Heels were so bad defensively last season they can’t possibly be any worse. Right?

But how much improvement is reasonable? The Tar Heels should improve by default and, at the least, the switch to a 4-3 should fix some of the problems – like the one about how lost players looked in the 4-2-5. Chizik, though, isn’t walking into the same situation he did at Texas in 2005 or at Auburn in 2002. This is far different, and his challenge is far more significant.