CHARLOTTE — A laughable suggestion just three seasons ago is a reality for North Carolina this season: The Tar Heels must depend on outstanding play from their defense if they are going to be successful this season.
Thanks to a talented offense, UNC managed to win six games in 2014 despite having one of the worst defenses in program history (five games giving up 40 or more points.) With numerous offensive stars lost from last season, that will be far from the case this year. A Tar Heels defense that showed progress last season while also having its struggles at times will have to be the team’s strength.
“We’ve lost quite a bit of production on the offensive side of the ball, so our defense this year — especially early on in the year, with having the most experience — is going to have to carry us while these young guys on offense grow up a little bit,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said.
While the offense tries to find its way and find players to take over key positions, the defense recognizes the greater burden this season.
“I would consider it an honor that the team is relying on the defense this year,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart (in above photo) said. “To be the backbone of a 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.”
The defense suffered two big losses that weren’t necessarily expected: defensive tackle Nazair Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks after forgoing his senior season, and Gene Chizik, who resigned as defensive coordinator during the offseason. John Papuchis, who was the linebackers coach, filled Chizik’s position.
Fedora said that the approach will change under Papuchis since the defense will be counted on to be a little stingier against the run.
“I think the things that J.P. has added in the spring to the package have helped us,” Fedora said. “If you look at what we did, we were pretty basic. We were two high safeties. Any time you’re two high safeties you’re going to be vulnerable to the run, that’s the way it is. But it was about ‘don’t give up the big plays,’ but we won 19 games that way. But now I think we’re going to have to put more pressure on the defense to help us win more games.”
There is also a big contrast in style between Chizik and Papuchis.
“Gene was very calm, collected the way he talked, the way he did things with the team,” Fedora said. “JP is more excitable. They are two different people, two different personalities so I’m sure that you’re going to see differences based on personality alone.”
Stewart doesn’t expect big adjustments.
“It’s been a really smooth transition,” he said. “Coach J.P. was there last year, so all the guys respect him. He has the respect of all the guys, and it’s really not a big change between Coach Chizik and Coach J.P.”
Also lost are three other starters: defensive end Mikey Bart, safety Dominique Green and cornerback Des Lawrence.
UNC returns all three starting linebackers — senior Cayson Collins, junior Cole Holcomb and junior Andre Smith — as well as junior end Malik Carney.
“It’s going to start up front,” Fedora said. “The front seven is the key. The linebackers have got to fit but those guys up front have to control the line of scrimmage and, if they do, we have a chance.”
Fedora says this defense should be able to put more pressure on the quarterback, led by Carney, red-shirt freshman Tomon Fox and senior Dajuan Drennon.
“I think we’re going to get pressure off the edge that we haven’t had the last couple of years,” Fedora said.
When opponents do get passes off, there will be pressure to solve a season-long mystery from a year ago: How could that secondary go an entire season and intercept only one pass? It was even more befuddling for Stewart, who didn’t intercept a pass after collecting four in 2015.
“It seems so simple, we just didn’t come down with the ball,” Stewart said. “We were always in position, it wasn’t like we were getting burned every play. We were rated as one of the best in the country at passes-defended efficiency, we just didn’t come down with the interceptions. A lot of people see one interception, it doesn’t mean we weren’t a good secondary. We just have to focus on catching it and pulling it in.”
Stewart has embraced a leadership role as a senior and has taken the time to help out the younger players after he debated leaving for the NFL after his junior season.
“I did miss a few opportunities myself,” said Stewart, who was told he might go anywhere from late in the second round of the draft to the fourth round, but thought he could have improved that position with a good NFL Combine performance. “That’s probably one of the reasons I came back because I didn’t really feel like I had the season I wanted to have. I wanted to end with a bang. It was a really tough decision. I firmly believe I made the right decision. It was more ‘was I ready?’ I feel like I wasn’t ready.”
The Tar Heels come into the season with plenty of secondary depth and young talent, led by sophomores Patrice Rene, K.J. Sails and Myles Dorn.
“I just see great work ethic from them,” Stewart said. “This offseason they’ve been working really hard, working on their craft, and they just make it fun. You know, the young boys, especially K.J., he’s a character. He just makes it fun, and that’s what you play football for, brotherhood.”
How much fun the Tar Heels have overall will probably depend on just how effective that defense is, particularly early in the season.