CHAPEL HILL — M.J. Stewart spent a good portion of his summer workouts catching passes from the four players battling to become North Carolina’s starting quarterback.
No, he’s not thinking about playing both ways in an effort to bolster the Tar Heels’ graduation-depleted receiving corps. The All-ACC cornerback was simply working on improving his hands so that he and his defensive teammates can improve on a statistic that continues to haunt them.
UNC actually led the ACC and ranked 12th nationally in pass defense last season, allowing an average of just 180.8 yards per game through the air.
But that’s not what people remember about the 2016 Tar Heels.
Rather, it’s the fact that the finished dead last nationally with only one interception, with that coming in the 10th game against an FCS opponent, The Citadel.
“It seems so simple, but we just didn’t look it in all the way and come down with the ball,” said Stewart, a senior who has six career picks and led the team with 11 pass breakups a year ago. “It’s not like we weren’t in position and were getting burned every play. We just didn’t come down with interceptions. People see only one interception, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t a good secondary.”
And yet, UNC’s defenders still find themselves having to defend themselves over their lack of takeaways last season.
It’s a psychological wound that continues to sting, especially since the Tar Heels tied for the ACC lead with 17 interceptions the year before.
“Me, personally, I dropped three clean interceptions,” linebacker Andre Smith said. “You can’t blame that on anyone else. It’s all my fault. You just have to keep working at it. That’s all you can do.”
Other the summer workouts with the wide receivers and a greater focus on catching the ball, the biggest thing UNC’s pass defenders could have going for them this season is a change in philosophy brought about by new defensive coordinator John Papuchis.
Though most of the differences from retired former coordinator Gene Chizik are subtle, Papuchis is instilling a much more aggressive approach in his players.
“We’ve taken the leash off and we want to be aggressive,” senior safety Donnie Miles said. “We want to get after people.”
Papuchis previously served as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska before coming to UNC as linebackers coach two seasons ago as part of a defensive shakeup that centered around Chizik’s arrival.
Fedora is counting on both Papuchis’ familiarity with the personnel and his players’ familiarity with the system to make the transition a smooth one.
“When Gene left, it was natural for JP to move into that spot,” Fedora said. “We were more basic with what we did the last two years and now those guys understand the base. So now it’s JP being able to expand it, to do more over there so we have more tackles for loss, more sacks, all of those things.”
Including more interceptions.
Becoming more opportunistic on defense, however, isn’t just a matter of pride. It might also be a necessity, especially early in the season as UNC goes up against some tough competition with an offense looking to replace its starting quarterback, top two rushers and three of its four leading receivers.
As Stewart pointed out, the defense can do its part in helping that young offense develop by wrapping up some of those interceptions and giving it a short field on which to operate.
“In years past the offense has been like the backbone of our team,” Stewart said. “But I think this year is a good chance for our defense to step up and be that rock and that platform for our team. In that sense we have to create game-changing plays, which are takeaways — forced fumbles and things like that.”