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June 24, 2013

Carolina Countdown: Defense

The Carolina Countdown continues this week, as Tar Heel Illustrated takes a look at the defensive side of the ball for UNC and where they will be looking to improve this coming season.

Last season fans were able to see a totally different type of team on the field with Larry Fedora switching to a spread attack offensively, which allowed the Tar Heels to move up and down the field, providing more possessions and breaking many school records along the way.

However, the Tar Heel defense struggled last fall taking the field around the fast-paced UNC offensive system, giving up mediocre numbers across the board.

Take a look at some of the staggering numbers the defense gave up last year, showing that there will be improvements needed before the start of the next season if the Tar Heels are going to get better.

2012 Defensive Stats

- Opp. Points/Game: 28.0
- Opp. Yards/Game: 409.5
- Opp. 3rd Conv. Percentage: 37.3%
- Opp. Redzone Scoring Percentage: 87.8%
- Opp. Rush Play Percentage: 51.3%
- Opp. Rushing Yards/Game: 151.8
- Opp. Passing Play Percentage: 48.7%
- Opp. Completion Percentage: 58.7%
- Opp. Passing Yards/Game: 257.7
- Takeaways/ Game: 1.9

There is no doubt that the defense in general will be the focal point when looking at the start of the season to see if there has been any improvement.

There were some moments where North Carolina gave glimpses of looking like a dominant defense, but against schools that lacked the talent that UNC had such as Elon and Idaho.

The Tar Heels had a couple of games where they were able to hold opponents to under 15 points a game, including shutouts of Elon and Idaho, six points allowed in the win over East Carolina, and in ACC road victories over Miami and Virginia, 14 and 13 points, respectively.

On the other hand, the defense seemed to struggle against some of the more capable offensive units they face, getting run up and down the field and giving up a ton of yardage against the likes of Wake Forest, Louisville, Duke, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State.

Even though the Tar Heels won some of those games, coordinator Dan Disch, as well as defensive assistant and associate head coach Vic Koenning, weren't anywhere close to happy with the level of intensity on the field and will be looking to improve in all areas on defense, especially against the run.

The Tar Heels have brought in two new defensive assistants, Keith Gilmore and Ron West, and they have the potential to greatly aid the cause.

The significance of the Gilmore and West additions goes beyond the mere fact that combined they've got approximately 60 combined years of coaching experience.

Each of them have worked in past situations with Koenning and Disch, including the 2010 season at Illinois when all four of them combined to produce one of the best defensive seasons in recent history in Champaign.

Under the tutelage of Disch, Koenning, Gilmore, and West, the 2010 Illini defensive unit held five opponents under 100 yards rushing, while also producing 2011 NFL First Round Draft selection Corey Liuget.

Speaking of the NFL, the Tar Heels are having to replace the heart and soul of the 2012 UNC defense, as Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick have moved on to careers in the professional ranks.

Now, UNC will depend on veterans such as Kareem Martin, Tim Jackson, Tim Scott, Jabari Price and Tre Boston to solidify the defensive side of the ball.

Linebackers Travis Hughes, Dan Mastromatteo, Tommy Heffernan, and Nathan Staub will have to pick up where the others left off and be able to stop the passing game, while attacking the line of scrimmage and attempting to lower the amount of rushing yards per game.

Martin will be one of the leaders coming into next season, as THI caught up with him in early April to get his opinion on what the defense might look like next season.

"We've got a lot of young guys, and they're competing really hard. I think the fact that there's so many young guys and that they're competing, it's making them grow up a lot faster. They're becoming better players each day. You can see in every practice they're growing up, and I think it's really going to help our defense by the end of spring."

That is certainly true, as many of the players in the rotation on the defensive end are either juniors or sophomores, some of which will provide necessary depth along with experience on that side of the ball.

Furthermore, UNC added even more depth with their incoming recruiting class, with names such as Greg Webb, Brian Walker, Desmond Lawrence, Nazair Jones, Dajaun Drennon, along with others, who will come in and look to compete with the others.

Under the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme, there was certainly going to be a learning curve, but now the leaders and returning players have been able to study and learn from their mistakes last year.

Fedora is looking for a nucleus on the defensive side and not just having one area of the field being the blame for what the team wasn't able to do.

UNC is going up against several experienced and talented offensive teams this fall, as one can see below, which means the Tar Heels can't afford to miss out on a single opportunity to improve defensively in the coming months, whether it's watching extra film, spending extra time before and after practice working on various things, and training this summer in preparation for the autumn grind.

2013 Opponents Offensive Ranks from Last Season

South Carolina - 376.5 ypg (84th)
Middle Tennessee - 392.8 ypg (66th)
Georgia Tech - 441.1 ypg (35th)
East Carolina - 408.5 ypg (56th)
Virginia Tech - 376.8 ypg (83rd)
Miami (FL) - 440.2 ypg (37th)
Boston College - 349.0 ypg (101)
NC State - 421.2 ypg (48th)
Virginia - 396.5 ypg (62nd)
Pittsburgh - 390.1 ypg (71st)
Old Dominion - 548.2 ypg
Duke - 409.2 ypg (55th)

The Tar Heels will have the potential to be a solid secondary with many of the players returning from last year and gaining experience from last season, while there will be a turnaround at the linebacker positions and a small movement around the defensive line that will have to be addressed during August camp practices.

However, coming out of the spring game and practices, the players seem confident and have taken their punishment in learning the new system.

Now they will look to define themselves as much as the offense did last year in making the 2013 season a statement year for North Carolina and returning as possibly Coastal Division champs.


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