CHAPEL HILL (AP) — North Carolina brought in new coaches, changed the scheme and spent offseason workouts trying to change every part of a defense that couldn’t stop anyone last season.
The next step is finding out if all that work has made any difference.
The Tar Heels are coming off a year in which they gave up more points and yards than any other team in school history. That means Thursday’s opener against South Carolina in Charlotte will provide the first look at whether the Tar Heels have improved at all.
“I think they’ve absorbed a lot,” first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “I think they’ve been very tuned in to what we’re asking them to do. You never know what you’re going to get until you turn the lights on as we all know. . We’ll know on (Friday) where we’re at and where we need to be headed.”
The ugly numbers, created by blown assignments and missed tackles, still hang over this year’s squad. The Tar Heels (6-7) allowed program records of 6,472 yards (497.8 per game) and 507 points (39 per game) last year. They gave up 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards, and single-game records of 70 points and 789 yards in a humbling loss at instate East Carolina.
That led head coach Larry Fedora to hire Chizik, the former Auburn head coach who won a national title with the Tigers and was defensive coordinator when Texas won a championship in 2005. Then came former Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis to coach linebackers, former Air Force defensive coordinator Charlton Warren to coach defensive backs and Tray Scott to coach the line.
That group spent the spring teaching fundamentals to the Tar Heels as they moved from a 4-2-5 alignment to a 4-3 base scheme, then pushed players to learn everything they could during the summer before trying to bring it all together during training camp.
Linebacker Shakeel Rashad called UNC’s defensive coaches “brilliant.”
“They’ve all had success in the past and you can see it in the way they coach it,” Rashad said. “You can see in the way that they’ve made this scheme. It all makes sense. It all fits. We’ve got something, a check, for anything that happens in a game.”
It’s left the Gamecocks in a bit of uncertainty as to what exactly to expect Thursday night. Coach Steve Spurrier said his staff watched film from Chizik’s time at Auburn as part of its preparation.
“Who knows if he’s got some new schemes or this, that and the other?” Spurrier said. “We’re expecting a lot of different stuff and I think they’re probably expecting some different stuff from us also. The days of just lining up in a 4-3, or three-deep, two-deep or whatever, are over. Guys are disguising, they’re bringing guys from all over the place. That’s what really college defenses are about now.”
Part of the defensive staff’s challenge was rebuilding confidence, too. Talk to some of the defensive players now, and they at least sound refreshed and energized by the prospect of change — though Fedora is quick to note they haven’t faced any adversity yet, either.
Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said the players know they made up a “horrible” defense and want to prove they’re better than what they’ve shown.
“We’re looking for guys that are flying around, making tackles and having fun — and playing the game the right way,” he said. “I think the past two years we’ve kind of gotten away from that — guys not going full all the time, missing tackles because they’re hesitant.
“I want guys that are playing 110 percent. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. You’ve got to bounce back from your mistakes and move on with it.”