TarHeelIllustrated - Youth Movement On D Paying Off
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Youth Movement On D Paying Off

UNC's defense has been uch better since late in the Wake Forest game, and a major reason is added depth.
UNC's defense has been uch better since late in the Wake Forest game, and a major reason is added depth. (USA Today)

CHAPEL HILL – Perhaps flying a bit under the radar as North Carolina’s season winds down is a clear improvement in how the Tar Heels have played on defense for the last nine-plus quarters.

The Wake Forest game, in which UNC won 59-53, certainly isn’t a performance the Tar Heels will thrust forward when time comes to lay out a season highlight reel, but it was important because of a transition that took place during the third quarter that afternoon in Kenan Stadium.

It was pretty much out of necessity, too. The Tar Heels couldn’t stop the Demon Deacons, and it wasn’t the first time the defense struggled putting forth a respectable effort, much less an effective one. So, the staff made a change, and it has paid off.

“I don’t think there’s any question that what I’ve seen is the run defense and the front seven,” Brown said Monday, when asked what the difference has been on defense since that reference point. “We’re playing better technique, we’re playing with better leverage, we’re stopping more runs, we stripped three balls on Saturday.”

Carolina’s opponents have run 151 offensive plays spanning 30 possessions since the mid-point of the third quarter versus Wake Forest, a period that includes the last six series for the Deacs that day. In that stretch, Wake, Notre Dame and Western Carolina have accumulated 835 yards and scored 41 points. WCU scored a defensive touchdown, which is not factored in these numbers.

Hester (98) and Grimes (20) have seen much more action in recent games.
Hester (98) and Grimes (20) have seen much more action in recent games. (USA Today)

In the 91 opponents’ possessions prior to the transition versus Wake, UNC’s foes scored 30 touchdowns and converted eight field goals in 91 possessions. That’s getting points 41.7 percent of the time, and it doesn’t include several missed field goals. That’s also scoring touchdowns 32.9 percent of the time.

Since, however, opponents have scored on just seven of 30 possessions, which is 23.3 percent of the time, with five touchdowns (16.7 percent) and three field goals. That’s a stark difference.

“Oh, it's great,” junior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “I mean, I just gotta give shout outs. Tomon (Fox) and Ray (Vohasek) and all those guys. They're getting in the film room there. And it's not even just them. They're getting the young guys ready.”

“They're getting Kaimon Rucker ready. They're getting Murph (Myles Murphy) ready. They're getting Des (Evans) ready. And I think that's from the beginning of the season to where we are now. And it’s been huge steps.”

The young guys are really to central point here.

With 4:43 remaining in the third quarter of the Wake game, the staff inserted true freshmen Tony Grimes and Ja’Quarious Conley into the lineup. It’s also when a more concerted youth movement on defense was born.

Gemmel has high praise for the defense's improvements in recent games.
Gemmel has high praise for the defense's improvements in recent games. (ACC Media)

Grimes has played 140 of his 196 defensive snaps since then, as an example. He is now the starter at one cornerback spot, Conley is the starter at nickel, and Evans has started the last two games at one of the hybrid spots.

“I also think the fact that we forced ourselves to playing a lot more people; we’re fresher, we’re not as tired during the game and therefore we don’t have as many lapses,” Brown said.

Six noteworthy freshmen, including redshirt lineman Kevin Hester, who played one year of football in high school, have combined to play 453 snaps since that point in the Wake game. Through the first seven contests, the sextet averaged playing a combined 65.6 snaps per game, since they’ve combined to average 151 snaps per contest.

That also correlates to when UNC started having more success on defense.

And even if you remove the WCU game from the equation, the unit has still allowed scores on just six of 17 possessions with five as touchdowns. Nine of those possessions went for 19 yards or less.

Carolina’s defense still has plenty of growing in front of it, but there’s no mistaking a recent trend that has the needle pointed in the right direction.