UNC emphasizing run defense improvement in Chiziks second year

Jeremy Brevard—USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora speaks to the media during the ACC Football Kickoff at Westin Charlotte

CHAPEL HILL — After the 2014 season, it was obvious the North Carolina defense needed something different.The 6-7 Tar Heels ranked 117 out of 125 FBS teams in total defense, giving up nearly 500 yards per game. By giving up 240 rushing yards per game, opponents were quite literally running all over UNC.The program needed a change, and it got one in a big way with the hiring of defensive guru Gene Chizik. The mastermind behind Auburn’s 2010 undefeated national championship season joined the Tar Heels as the defensive coordinator, replacing Vic Koenning. The results weren’t instantaneous, but after a season with Chizik at the defensive helm, the Tar Heels are showing a marked improvement.In a 2015 season that culminated with a loss to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl, UNC improved from 117th-best defense in the FBS to 95th, holding opponents to 435.9 yards per game and 5.50 yards per play. While those numbers don’t necessarily show a drastic change, UNC did improve its scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 24.5 points in 2015, a big improvement from 39 points per game the previous season.And to coach Larry Fedora, that’s the most telling statistic.”I never look at total yards. I don’t care how many yards we give up,” he said. “We’re looking at turnover ratio, explosive plays, catastrophic plays. We look at how we perform in the red zone. We want to hold teams to field goals or nothing 50 percent of the time. Then I look at third-down percentages.”There’s only really one stat that means anything on the defense, and that’s scoring defense. As long as they hold them to one less point than we score, then they’ve done a good job.”So how did Chizik do it?The former head coach took UNC’s defense out of Koenning’s 4-2-5 system and implemented a much simpler 4-3 pressure scheme. Chizik held off on installing all of the complicated variations of the defense and kept his players largely operating out of the base scheme.While the defensive backs flourished in their first year under Chizik, grabbing 17 interceptions, the defensive line still struggled to stop opponents’ run game. UNC allowed opponents to rack up 247.4 rushing yards per game and ranked 121 out of 127 FBS teams in run defense. It comes as no surprise, then, that improving run defense is Chizik’s top priority in the preseason.”That’s not an oversimplification,” Chizik said. “We have to get better at stopping the run, and we know that.”Though UNC obviously has to improve on that aspect of the defense, circumstances within live games will determine how much the Tar Heels have to clamp down on opponents’ run game. With their powerful offense putting up 40.7 points per game last season, the Tar Heels weren’t too worried about giving up a couple runs through the course of game.”If you’re up by 35 points, then stopping the run isn’t really the name of the game at that point,” Chizik said. “Circumstances definitely dictate, but as an overall, general rule, we have to get better at stopping the run.”One year into Chizik’s system, the Tar Heels have a firm grasp of the base defense. But now, Chizik will add more bells and whistles to his system.”What we wanted is to stay as basic as possible for our players and it helped us be successful last year,” Fedora said. “No doubt about it. Now, Gene and the defensive staff know, we’ve got to expand our package and we will and we have.”Keeping it simple worked for the Tar Heels, and the team managed to force 26 turnovers, including 17 interceptions. Anchored by Donnie Miles, Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart, the secondary flourished. Miles led UNC with 128 tackles while Stewart grabbed four interceptions.But as evidenced in the run game, there’s still plenty of room to grow.With Nazair Jones, Mikey Bart and Jalen Dalton, UNC has good key pieces returning to the defensive line. As a senior, Bart returns with the most experience. He led UNC with 6.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries last season.UNC also has plenty of talent in Jones, a third-team All-ACC selection. He averaged four tackles a game last season and had one interception and three quarterback hurries.Dalton, a defensive tackle recruited as the No. 1 player in North Carolina in his class, added about 40 pounds in the offseason in preparation for a monster sophomore season.And with defensive end Dajaun Drennon battling an undisclosed injury, junior tackle Tyler Powell is filling in to give the Tar Heels more flexibility on the line.”We’re trying to get some depth with some other guys,” Chizik said. “Tyler Powell has kind of become a swing guy for us where we feel he can play the inside and outside. It’s a mix of younger guys along with Mikey.”There’s still a long way to go before UNC’s ready to face Georgia Sept. 3, but through a couple of camp scrimmages, the staff has already noticed a big improvement in the defensive line.”I think they’re understanding where they fit in the scheme really well,” Chizik said. “Once you do that, then the amount of physicality that you can bring to the table every week changes because there’s not a lot of thinking going on.”If you don’t have a defensive line, then you don’t have a defense. They’ve shown some progress in that and in our pass rush, our four-man pass rush. I think we’ve gotten better at that. They’re still a work in progress but I think they’re much further along this time than they were this time last year.”