UNC defense encouraged, but not satisfied, after promising performance in season opener

North Carolina linebacker Jeff Shoettmer (10) stops South Carolina tailback Shon Carson (7) after a gain of 2 yards in the fourth quarter during the Belk College Kickoff at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte.
North Carolina linebacker Jeff Shoettmer (10) stops South Carolina tailback Shon Carson (7) after a gain of 2 yards in the fourth quarter during the Belk College Kickoff at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It wasn’t perfection, or anything close to it, and in moments – such as when North Carolina allowed a 48-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter of its season-opening loss – its defense still looked a bit broken, like it looked a lot of last season.

Most of the time during UNC’s 17-13 loss last week against South Carolina, though, the Tar Heels’ defense looked nothing like it did last season. And that was a good thing. The missed assignments seemed fewer. The mistakes less glaring.

Remember last year, how opposing receivers often could be seen running …

“Wide open,” Des Lawrence, the junior cornerback, said earlier this week, finishing the sentence.

Yes, “wide open” fits. There were fewer moments like that against South Carolina – fewer times when UNC’s defense appeared out of position and out of sorts. The 17 points the Tar Heels allowed were the fewest since their final game of the 2013 season.

The defensive performance, while far from flawless, provided an indication of what could be. It provided a sense of potential – and for once that potential appears promising.

“I was pleased from the standpoint that I felt like it was a good starting point,” Gene Chizik, in his first season as UNC’s defensive coordinator, said on Wednesday. “You know, it could have been one of those scenarios where you look back and just everything that could go wrong did.

“And that wasn’t the case. They executed our game plan.”

Chizik, who was perhaps the most qualified defensive coach available for hire, admitted before last week that he had no way of knowing – not really, anyway – what to expect from his defense. Had four weeks of practice in the spring and a month before the start of the season awarded enough time for him to teach? Had his players understood?

Chizik had entered other seasons expecting to see one thing before witnessing another. He said he’d been fooled before. What he watched on Thursday was a defense that seemed to get it. That in itself, even amid a defeat, was a victory for a unit that had endured so much turmoil a season ago.

“I’m encouraged by it,” Jeff Schoettmer, the senior linebacker, said. “But I’m not satisfied at all. We left a lot of plays on the table. We definitely think we could have played better and we know we can. I’m definitely encouraged by the improvement but no way near satisfied.”

Building confidence

Schoettmer earlier this week didn’t offer much of answer when asked when the last time UNC’s defense had felt as encouraged as it did after last Thursday. Perhaps it had been since a victory at Duke last November, when Schoettmer and his beleaguered defensive opponents offered their best performance.

Regardless, it had been awhile. When Chizik arrived at UNC last January, he had to build a foundation first. The players he inherited had lost confidence – both in each other and in the previous coaching staff. Morale was low.

Slowly, Chizik and UNC’s staff installed a new scheme and new beliefs. The first game of the season offered a progress report, of sorts, and though it was positive overall Chizik still finds himself trying to change old habits and replace them with new ones.

“I think they felt improvement,” Chizik said of the performance against the Gamecocks. “I don’t think any of them felt satisfied. And our practice habits still need to change. We’re still not practicing to the standard of a championship defense. We talk about it every day.

“Them not practicing to that standard is not an option. It’s not an option. They either do it and they can be part of it. Or they don’t do it and they can be gone.”

The negatives

Though UNC allowed 17 points and fewer than 400 yards – something it did only three times a season ago – one of the numbers that stuck most with Chizik and his players was 48. That was the length of Shon Carson’s touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

The run gave South Carolina a lead it never relinquished, and it came on exactly the kind of play that Chizik has stressed can’t happen.

“We’ve been talking since eight months ago, too, about no catastrophic plays,” he said. “Passes or runs. Those are back-breakers. What happened in the game? We gave one up, and we couldn’t close the deal.”

That one play and the lack of turnovers – UNC didn’t force any against South Carolina – were the negatives for the Tar Heels’ revamped defense. The positive, though, was that the defense gave UNC a chance and kept it in the game, which is something that could be rarely said a season ago.

There were still mistakes. Still forgettable plays that will be remembered – the 48-yard touchdown run, Des Lawrence’s dropped interception, which he could have returned for a touchdown. Overall, though, there was proof of change and improvement.

“We’re not there yet,” Lawrence said. “We’re not anywhere close to where we want to be, but we know in the back of our minds we can be really dangerous if we put the work into it.”

North Carolina A&T at UNC

Saturday, 6 p.m.