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September 6, 2013

Minimizing the Big Ones

North Carolina's defense gave up 203 yards in the first quarter of the 2013 season last Thursday at Columbia---a stat that undoubtedly helped lead to UNC's undoing.

Coach Larry Fedora said the stat was result of some simple things - missed tackles, a few missed assignments and getting beat - after the 27-10 loss to South Carolina.

After a thorough review of film, however, Fedora seemed to see things a little different, he recognized that the type of plays the Gamecock offense was able to make, rather than the number of plays they executed, were the cause of concern.

When the Tar Heels host Middle Tennessee State on Saturday they'll face a non-ranked team and are expected to win, but defensive end Kareem Martin believes the factors surrounding the home opener potentially provide as much opportunity for UNC's defense to be capitalized on as playing no. 6 South Carolina did.

"It means they (MTSU) can take a lot more risks," Martin said. "They can air it out, try a few more trick plays, their whole playbook's going to be open. They're coming into a game where a lot of people don't expect them to win so they're going to give it all they have."

The Blue Raiders' fast-paced offense does give UNC's defense an advantage in terms of the type of schemes it will face, but the style of the playbook also puts MTSU in a position to make big plays similar to the way South Carolina did even though the opponent doesn't have the same type of playmaking talent across the board.

"It's always a concern when you're going against a spread team where there are always zones that are open," Martin said. "A spread team thrives off the big plays so the big thing this week is just watching (MTSU's) film and attention to detail in practice."

The defensive strengths last week came in the fact that the players were able to settle into their roles after the first quarter and held South Carolina to as many yards in the second, third and fourth quarters collectively as they did in that disastrous first period.

For both Martin and Fedora, it seemed that once North Carolina's offense got into a little rhythm, maintained possession and allowed the defense an opportunity to settle, stops came more frequently.

But the aggression the UNC players took to the field at Williams-Brice Stadium was the high point from the start.

"If you look on film, every play there's about seven or eight guys running to the ball and being the first game, that's something big," Martin said.

"Everybody doesn't run to the ball the first game, it's something that usually happens over the course of the season, and just to have that many guys flying around is definitely a positive for us going forward for the rest of the season."

Martin also mentioned that technique may have been a weakness that affected the defense's ability to have the right attention to detail before missed big plays and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore agrees.

From the coach's standpoint, the cohesiveness of the line and ability of players to account for a co-line members' mistakes was an area that needs to be improved on over the course of a game.

"The thing with missed tackles is you've got to have pursuit, you've got to have other people in place to make the play if one guy misses it," Gilmore said. "It's just about gang tackling and making sure that you bend your knees and come to balance and get yourself in a good football position."

Over the course of Thursday's game, Gilmore described an emphasis on "weathering the storm," playing in an intense environment but knowing that his defensive line has to start stronger and realize "it's just a football game," despite distractions and environmental pressure.

"I think that Justin Thomason and Jessie Rogers both did a good job to be young guys, and not young, per se, but Ethan Farmer and Shawn Underwood both did a good job too," he said. "So I think we're starting to build some depth and I think we've got some guys coming up the ranks that will be solid players."

Development is on-going but Martin and Gilmore believes that the attention to the little things this week will have the defense well-prepared to give a visibly-improved performance Saturday.

"I think it'll be a good amount of progress, I think that the guys have worked hard and looked at the things we didn't do well and I think you'll see a significant improvement," Gilmore said.


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