UNC's 'backbone': Bent and broken through three games
Posted September 21
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Coming into the 2017 season, the idea that the Carolina defense would anchor the 2017 team — unlike every other year under Larry Fedora — was prevalent. The Tar Heels returned seven defensive starters from last season's team and after another off-season with Jon Papuchis running an evolved version of the same defense introduced by Gene Chizik, the thought was that finally the defense would carry the load.
“I would consider it an honor that the team is relying on the defense this year,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said at the ACC Kickoff in July. “To be the backbone of the team, like I said, it’s an honor. So we’re going to take that head on, and we use that as motivation defensively to show people that we’re one of the best defenses in the nation.”
About that . . .
Through three games, Carolina is 121st in the nation in total defense allowing 496.7 yards per game. The Tar Heels are 109th in scoring defense at 35.0 points allowed per game. There are 130 FBS schools.
Tar Heel defensive coaches and players often talk about limiting catastrophic plays, which are (just as they sound) plays that break open for the other team and result in big gains, if not touchdowns. It is crucial to limit such plays, but Carolina has allowed gains of 10 or more yards 50 times through just three games. Nine times, those plays went for 30 yards or more.
If there’s something worse than catastrophic, this is it. The “backbone of the team” has bent and broken.
The buzzword around the Tar Heel defense has been ‘communication,’ as in “We’re just not communicating on the field,” and “I don’t know what it is; we’re not communicating.” Such was the refrain following Carolina’s losses to Cal and Louisville, both games the team could have won had it limited catastrophic plays.
The communication issues are somewhat surprising given the veterans on the defensive side of the ball. There’s not a freshman on the two-deep, and players like Donnie Miles, Stewart and Dajaun Drennon all boast more than 25 career starts.
With the communication issues in mind, the defensive coaching staff dialed back on the complexity last week. Against Old Dominion, they kept the players primarily in their base defense, allowing for clearer communication and for playing without thinking.
The results were much better. Obviously, given the difference in programs, the Tar Heels should have looked better against the Monarchs, but that’s who was on the schedule. And, play to play, the defense communicated better, got hats to the ball and made good stops.
“Coach let us play what we know how to play,” said linebacker Cole Holcomb. “All camp, all spring, we never game-planned against our offense; he just let us play. That helped us play fast and that’s the one thing he’s making sure that we can do. He’s just letting us do our thing and play how we know.”
The task gets taller this weekend as Carolina hosts Duke; the 3-0 Blue Devils are humming on offense behind dual-threat quarterback Daniel Jones. So the Tar Heels must continue to improve their communication behind the leaders on the defense.
“That’s Donnie and M.J., that’s Cole Holcomb. Those things go on them,” Larry Fedora said. “They’re the ones that have got to do a great job of communicating.”
Do the Tar Heels stay with what they know, the simplified scheme, even though it may be on the film that Duke studies this week, or do they try to get creative and complex again?
“I feel like we can beat them with what we do,” Holcomb said. “We just know that when we play confident, I feel like we can be one of the best defenses that’s out there.”
Junior linebacker Andre Smith is apparently out with a lower body injury. Sophomore Jonathan Smith, who missed multiple games due to injury a year ago himself, steps into that role as the "quarterback of the defense," according to Fedora. It’s on the young Smith to be assertive, making the defensive calls and adjustments on the field.
As the sophomore eloquently put it, in high school, he was the best player on the field. Now, he’s lined up with and across from 21 other players who were once that best player on the field. And so execution of scheme is paramount; athleticism will only get you so far.
“It’s a lot harder because you’ve got a lot of guys around you that are really depending on you,” he said. “In high school, if you didn’t get everybody lined up, you were the best guy on the field, so you could just go and make the play. But in college, if you don’t get everybody lined up, it could be a touchdown.”
The Tar Heels learned that the hard way in the first two weeks of the season. Against Duke, they’ll have to grow up fast and communicate on every play. Otherwise, it could be a touchdown.