TarHeelIllustrated - Task At Hand: Fix The Defensive Communication Issues
{{ timeAgo('2021-10-13 00:08:31 -0500') }} football Edit

Task At Hand: Fix The Defensive Communication Issues

At the core of UNC's recent struggles has been poor communication on defense leading to opponents' scoring eruptions.
At the core of UNC's recent struggles has been poor communication on defense leading to opponents' scoring eruptions. (USA Today)

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CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina has a defensive problem.

It is not always persistent, as at times the Tar Heels appear quite stout in slowing and stopping opponents on the football field. But when things go poorly for Jay Bateman’s defense, they essentially go off the rails and stay there for some time.

One bad possession here and there happens. The other teams have talented players and are giving effort, too. Excellent teams give up big plays, long drives, and touchdowns.

The issue at hand for the Tar Heels, though, is when it goes bad it really goes bad, and it takes the defense a great deal of time to climb out of it, if they climb out of it.

A most recent example occurred during UNC’s 35-25 loss to Florida State at Kenan Stadium this past Saturday. Carolina dominated the first quarter, leading 10-0 and limiting FSU to just 12 yards on six offensive plays.

Over the next two quarters, however, the Seminoles scored five touchdowns, racked up 352 yards, and took control of the game on their way to a noteworthy upset. The Tar Heels appeared disjointed on defense during the elongated eruption, a takeaway given credence by senior linebacker and captain Jeremiah Gemmel’s explanation of what went wrong.

“It was definitely communication on the back end,” Gemmel said following the defeat. “On one play, a touchdown, one half of the defense was playing in a different coverage than the other half.”

UNC allowed Georgia Tech and Florida State to score well over their season averages.
UNC allowed Georgia Tech and Florida State to score well over their season averages. (Jenna Miller/THI)

Pre-snap chatter was off, Gemmel said. It isn’t the scheme, he made clear, nor were they in the wrong calls, he insisted. The communication issues led to a cascade of mistakes.

“In certain splits, in certain formations, and certain proximities between one and two we make checks and calls between the free safety, bandit, corner, and nickel, and we didn’t make those checks tonight,” he said. “And that ended up biting us in the butt.”

Saturday was not the first time Carolina’s defense succumbed to this problem.

Just two weeks earlier, the Tar Heels allowed 32 points and 313 total yards in the second half at Georgia Tech, a game they lost 45-22 after leading 7-0. Gemmel said pretty much the same thing after that defeat.

The common threads in the two performances begin with apparent confusion, players breaking the wrong way, taking themselves out of plays, and thus appearing slower than they really are.

Two days following the loss in Atlanta, Bateman dismissed any idea that getting in the signals to the players was an issue. But this is two of the last three games in which players have been out of position enough to allow pedestrian offenses to explode to very long stretches.

Georgia Tech is No. 70 nationally in scoring and was 17 points over its average, and FSU is No. 82 in scoring and was eight points above its average. If you remove the UNC results, Tech was 20 points above its average of 25 versus everyone else, and FSU was 10 points above its average of 25 against its other opponents.

UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (44) says communication has been a problem at times this fall.
UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (44) says communication has been a problem at times this fall. (Jenna Miller/THI)

“We had people in the wrong place,” Brown said Saturday evening. “We weren’t fitting the line of scrimmage properly on some of those runs. We had communication issues in the secondary, which you can’t have. It seems like we clean them up, then they come back and happen again, so all those things are things that we have to clean up…

“We played defense more like we played at times at Georgia Tech, and tonight because we just gave up some big plays, and you can’t do that. It’s really frustrating.”

So discouraging that Brown showed a dash of anger Monday when the topic came up during his weekly press conference.

“We cannot continue with communication problems. Period,” he said. “It’s gotta stop. If I went into detail, you’d be shocked at some of the reasons one of the touchdowns happened. I’ve never heard it before in 33 years. It’s just crazy stuff. So, we’ve got to fix it. Good teams don’t do crazy stuff.”

Bateman said the staff hammered home the issue of communication Sunday, but it could be reaching a point where swift action will be taken, if that has already started. That might be the closest thing to a solution at this point.

“We have put a big emphasis on it,” Bateman said. “I thought it had improved a week ago (against Duke) and we took a step backward last week (versus FSU). So, eventually you get to a point where the guy that’s not communicating and the guy that’s missing the signal and the guy that’s not playing it right, you just replace that guy.

UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman says players not communicating will be replaced.
UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman says players not communicating will be replaced. (Jenna Miller/THI)

“I think there’s some of that at some level – you start to get frustrated with a guy that isn’t communicating.”

Even going back to a 59-39 win over Virginia, the defense had a rough go of it.

The Wahoos and lefthanded gunslinging quarterback Brennan Armstrong shredded Carolina’s defense for 28 points and 366 yards by halftime. Armstrong ended up passing for 554 yards that night, which is 71 more than anyone else ever has against a Carolina defense.

The problem versus UVA was somewhat similar. Gemmel said there was some miscommunication and “guys just weren’t getting their eyes where they were supposed to be.”

This isn’t an isolated problem, and as Brown said, it cannot continue if the Tar Heels are going to make something of their floundering season.

At 3-3, six games remain, but UNC likely would be an underdog in four of them if those contests were played this week. So, what has played out over the first half of the season won’t cut it.

Carolina’s issues aren’t solely on the defensive side of the ball, to enhance their chances at salvaging the season, the communication and overall defensive play must improve.