Moment of truth arrives for UNC run defense

UNC Safety Donnie Miles previews Georgia game

Video: North Carolina junior safety Donnie Miles talks about the Tar Heels’ season opening game against Georgia and their effort to improve the run defense following practice on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Video: North Carolina junior safety Donnie Miles talks about the Tar Heels’ season opening game against Georgia and their effort to improve the run defense following practice on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The question has followed North Carolina throughout four weeks of preseason practice, and hung over the Tar Heels since they ended last season by allowing more rushing yards than any team had ever surrendered in any bowl game in history.

Several times throughout the preseason, UNC coach Larry Fedora has addressed the question. His assistant coaches and players have heard it over and over again, too: Can the Tar Heels fix their beleaguered run defense? And what gives them hope it will be better than the last time we saw it?

Days before the start of the season, and an anticipated game on Saturday against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, Tray Scott sounded tired of the question. He’s UNC’s defensive line coach, the one assistant more responsible than any other for preparing the Tar Heels’ defensive front line.

“We work on it,” he said, answering yet another question about stopping the run, “and the guys have the will to fix it.”

He stopped there. Asked to expound, Scott provided a slightly varied version of his original response, only with more urgency.

“We work on it, we practice on it, and the guys have the will to fix it,” he said. “I have the will to get it fixed and we’ve got to be able to do that. It’s a team deal.”

The Tar Heels begin the season surrounded by expectations that haven’t existed around here in nearly 20 years. The offense, with eight starters back, aspires to be better than it was a season ago, when it set school records for yards and points per game.

Defensively, the secondary is believed to be a strength, and the cornerback duo of M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence appears especially promising. Up front, though, the defense is a mystery, and one that will remain unsolved at least until Saturday.

Throughout the preseason the Tar Heels have nursed injuries along their defensive line. Dajaun Drennon, a starting defensive end, isn’t on the depth chart entering Saturday. There are questions about whether Jalen Dalton, the sophomore defensive tackle, will play. Injuries have limited both.

Even if the Tar Heels were completely healthy, the task ahead of them would be formidable. Georgia was strong, at least last season, where UNC was weak. The Bulldogs’ running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel might be the nation’s best, though both have their own health questions to answer.

Chubb, who suffered a serious knee injury last October, has been cleared to play and is expected to start on Saturday. Michel, who performed admirably in Chubb’s absence, suffered a broken arm a little more than two months ago and has not been cleared to play.

The Tar Heels, then, have been left to guess at what they might encounter in the Georgia Dome. They’ve attempted to prepare for an onslaught, fearing the worst – that both of Georgia’s backs will be at their strongest and fastest.

Gene Chizik, the UNC defensive coordinator, spoke with confidence earlier this week of his plan to stop – or at least slow down – Georgia’s rushing offense. The last time Chizik prepared a defensive game plan, though, Baylor shredded it and amassed 645 yards rushing in a 49-38 bowl victory against UNC.

The sting of that loss has lingered for the Tar Heels, particularly for those most responsible for the futility against Baylor.

“They see where our shortcomings were,” Chizik said of his players. “I see where our shortcomings were. And it’s not all on the players. I mean, it’s a lot of the way we call defenses and the way we designed a lot of things, was based on winning games. So you can’t pin and say that you can’t stop the run. That’s not true. A lot of it’s based on game plan and what you’re willing to give up.”

The Tar Heels on Saturday likely won’t be willing to surrender large chunks of rushing yardage, which could hurt UNC in more ways the one. For one, the more successful Georgia’s rushing offense, the easier the Bulldogs will find it to move into scoring position and, eventually, into the end zone.

Second, the more time UNC’s defense spends faltering against the run, the fewer opportunities UNC’s offense will have to score. A powerful, ball-control rushing game could be among Georgia’s best defensive strategies against the Tar Heels’ potent offense.

And so limiting the Bulldogs’ rushing success will be paramount to UNC’s chances. Which is, in part, why Fedora, his staff and players have so often received inquiries about the progression of the run defense, which allowed 964 yards during UNC’s final two games last season – a loss against Clemson in the ACC Championship game followed by the record-setting defeat against Baylor.

As Fedora often likes to say, though, these are the 2016 Tar Heels. The failures, and successes, that defined UNC’s 11-win team last season are history. This is a new team, albeit one with many of the same players, and Fedora has expressed confidence that a weakness from last December could be a strength come Saturday.

“What gives me confidence?” Fedora said earlier this week, repeating a question about his confidence in his team’s ability to defend the run. “I would say how much work those guys have put in. Their attitudes. Tray’s attitude. The chemistry they have within that group.

“I think the things that Gene and the staff have put in, and installed. It gives me confidence.”

Perhaps the greatest unknown surrounding UNC’s rushing defense is what Fedora alluded to – the “things” that Chizik has installed. The defense is believed to be more complex, more creative entering his second season as the defensive coordinator.

Last year UNC kept it basic during the first season with a new scheme. This year there are more options. Elijah Hood, the junior running back, said earlier this week that during practices he has found it more challenging to find room to run against this version of the defense, compared with last season.

“Scheme-wise, I’m going to save it, just because Gene’s got the plans, and he’s got some stuff saved up,” Hood said. “So I’m not going to give that away. But they’ve definitely opened up Pandora’s Box in terms of what they do defensively.”

And now comes the time, at last, to provide an answer to all of the questions that have persisted. The Tar Heels, motivated by their humbling defensive failures at the end of last season, have been waiting for this.

Now comes the time for a reckoning on Saturday in Atlanta. Approaching the trip UNC isn’t lacking for confidence.

“Oh, we’re definitely going to answer all the questions,” Andre Smith, the sophomore linebacker, said after a recent practice, “and we’re definitely going to stop the run.”