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Perhaps its impossible to fully explain North Carolina's total defensive meltdown in giving up 55 points to East Carolina this past Saturday in what turned out to be UNC's first home loss to the Pirates in 38 years.
But UNC defensive coach Vic Koenning gave it a shot following Wednesday afternoon's practice.
Koenning, who works with UNC's entire defensive personnel but focuses specifically on the "Bandits," "Rams," and safeties in the 4-2-5 defense, didn't mince words when speaking about his disappointment in the loss to the Pirates.
While UNC fans worldwide have been forced to deal with their own various levels of frustration at the way the Tar Heels played against ECU, the time and energy Koenning has personally invested into the unit's overall development makes it much more personal for him of course.
"All of the credit needs to go to them (East Carolina). They looked like the Green Bay Packers and we made that running back look like Walter Payton for whatever reason, there's probably a lot of reasons, but reasons are excuses, you know. We played worse than average. We played extremely poor. They kicked our butt at every level, and the quarterback (Shane Carden) was on fire. He looked like Brett Favre. We couldn't get to him in time to affect his throws and their receivers were way better than our DB's. And when the tempo took effect with our guys up front, they cashed it in, and they just ran the ball at will."
"As you saw, it was an ugly, embarrassing performance and one that ultimately I'm responsible for," Koenning continued. "But it isn't one that I'll forget as far as that. I wish there were things that I could have done better. The only thing I know I could have done better is just stayed in their grill the whole time last week. I thought we had overcome that after playing hard at least against Georgia Tech. I thought we learned how to do that, but I guess we didn't."
"I'm just going to keep trying as hard as I can and try to find ways. I'm sure Coach (Larry) Fedora is beyond frustrated. I'm sure the fans are. There's no one more embarrassed and upset about it I promise you than us. I wish there was something I can undo or redo or make do, but that's the way it is," he continued.
After a promising defensive outing for the most part in the close loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, it seemed that UNC's defense regressed back light years in the loss to the Pirates.
"I went 180 degrees," Koenning said. "I went from being very encouraged. Not encouraged in a loss to Georgia Tech, but encouraged that we finally played hard. And we played with reckless abandon. And we showed something that we haven't really shown much of. Then all of a sudden, seven days later, it was like the whole other side of it."
Perhaps no single moment on Saturday better typified how bad things were than the moment when UNC had only nine defensive players on the field. One guy didn't know he was supposed to return to the field, while another didn't take the field after an injury took place.
"Our money guy ran off the field for who knows whatever reason," Koenning tried to explain. "And whether he thought we were going back to base (defense), but we had said for several days and in the locker room (the day of the game) and multiple times (during the game) that we weren't going to have time to do that unless there was some type of incomplete pass or something like that to stop."
"And then Norkeithus (Otis) got hurt and instead of laying down like you see every other team do, whether it's founded or unfounded, he hobbles off the field and his backup didn't go out there. So we've tried to correct Norkeithus and the other guy who is going to be put in that situation anymore because he's going to be standing on the sidelines (ready to enter the game)."
Koenning admitted that it's been a struggle this season getting the players to concentrate in practice and grasp his teaching, and it's limited his ability to look at the total defensive situation with the time he's had to spend concentrating more on non-schematic stuff such as desire and focus.
"I'm fighting them so hard every play to focus and do things right that I haven't been able to step back and see probably the big picture," Koenning said of the defensive personnel. "I try to see that on film, but sometimes you can't. Every play in practice, I'm fighting somebody to go to the ball harder or to focus more. It is like I'm in a fistfight with whoever the heavyweight champion is every day just trying to get these guys to do the right things and do it as fast and as hard as they can."
One thing that the ECU film showed---and it was also easy to see during the game itself---was that UNC often had players in position to make plays, but they simply didn't make them. That can be a lack of fundamentals, which is clearly an issue with any team that allows 55 points, but it can also be attributed to 'want to.'
"What was sad about it is we had guys at the point of attack (against ECU). They threw hitch screens into coverages that nobody should or has ever been able to throw hitch screens into and they blocked us and we didn't tackle," Koenning replied. "It's hard to explain some of it, but we had guys in position, you know. I've talked to two or three other people that watched the film, either scouts or other coaches, and they said, 'Heck, you had guys there.' That doesn't help. We've got to continue to try to get better."
Koenning has been all over the country during his two-decade coaching tenure, but he told us that he's spending more time here and now concentrating on basic tackling in practice than any other destination in his career.
"We're practicing tackling more than I've ever practiced it at any time in my career and physically more during the season. We have been doing that for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks, even back into the (training) camp," he said. "All I know to do is just to keep working hard. I don't know what else you can do besides just keep your nose down and go. The other alternative is not one that anybody wants to talk about."
So is it youth that's hurting the Tar Heels? Is it guys not caring about being responsible for their roles? Is is strictly a talent issue, not having enough capable players on defense? Is is coaching, trying to fit guys into schemes they're not able or willing to play correctly?
Or is it guys not taking an active role in being responsible for other guys and helping bring them along?
Or is it all of that?
"Usually guys are (starting to get it by now)," Koenning said. "Maybe it's because we're playing so many young guys. I think it's a combination of a lot of things. I think it's guys (and their) maturity level, or the youth. And there's not very much leadership right now. We're missing (Kevin) Reddick and Sly (Williams) and those guys badly. There's nobody from within pulling up."
"It's like when you try to move a couch. You get on one end and push and the front legs stick. You get the other end and pull on it and the back legs stick. You've got to have someone pushing and someone pulling. And that's really what it is," he added. "Those guys in that locker room, if they don't do it eventually, I can't."
"I mean, I can push all I want, but it is what it is with that. We were simpler or as simple as we've ever been (in the ECU game)---because of the tempo you have to be (playing against their offense)---and yet we didn't do things. The guys started getting frustrated and doing their own things, so again, it's my responsibility and we've got to find a way to fix it, so."
Koenning didn't lay specific blame on any one player or even any one position grouping in his brutally-honest assessment.
"Well, there's 29 guys in that (defensive) room," he said bluntly.
One segment at the end of Wednesday's practice serves as a microcosm of Koenning's current frustration at the players he's working with.
It wasn't necessarily that a guy wasn't doing right. It was that nobody was trying to help him in correcting the problem.
"That's why you heard me hollering over here," Koenning said of the sequence. "We messed up in a coverage right here in a two-minute drill. We had a new guy at a new position, but nobody else said anything. We all knew it was the most basic call that we've got in that situation and we've run (that scheme) all year. There were three or four other guys back there in the secondary that should have been trying to help him and nobody said anything. So that type of stuff is what I'm talking about. It's just why you heard me saying, 'Nobody cares. Blah, blah, blah, blah.' Somebody's got to step it up and be a leader and take it upon themselves to help."
Koenning's remarkably candid conversation ended with a brief thought on the players' only meeting that some UNC veterans held after the ECU loss.
"I think the players are just trying---not that I was there---I think we had some guys that wanted to vent, and that was their venue to vent. And I think there were some guys that probably got called out," he said.
"The expectations for some of those guys were supposed to be good players have been some of the guys that I have to drive around here like a mule. I think some of those guys (veterans like Kareem Martin and A.J. Blue) were starting to call them out and say, 'Hey man, we need you to step up and start being somebody. You're supposed to be somebody so start being somebody' So I think that was an opportunity for those guys. Not that I had anybody in there, but that's my take on it."