CHAPEL HILL — With piles of snow lining the sidelines at Navy Field, it really didn’t look like spring. With three linebackers and four defensive linemen, the North Carolina defense had a different look as well.
The Tar Heels kicked off spring football practice this week in winter-like conditions, and the talk of the town on Tuesday was the new look defense.
Carolina’s defense in 2014 was bad. Historically bad. The Heels gave up 50 or more points three times, including 70 to East Carolina. Multiple opponents crossed the 500-yard mark and the Heels gave up 240.5 rushing yards per game. Missed tackles (178 total in 2014) and blown assignments became the norm, prompting former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to ponder if guys were scared to tackle.
Exit Koenning at the end of the year, enter Gene Chizik, owner of two national championship rings, also a defensive guru. Chizik came to Chapel Hill in January to take over one of the worst defenses in the history of the program. Bringing in Chizik meant away with the 4-2-5 defense and the installment of the traditional base 4-3, which the Heels showed during the session of practice open to the media on Tuesday.
It’s hard to gage how different North Carolina will be. It’s still early in the spring and the guys are running around in shorts. However, one thing is clear: UNC is excited and ready to roll with its new look.
“It’s been good,” senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said about the new system. “Coach Chizik and his staff are taking things slow and I think that’s what we need.”
Chizik came in and simplified things. Schoettmer said in the past, the Tar Heels would install four of five packages each day. Under Chizik, each day is dedicated to one package, that’s it. The Heels learned one defensive call on Sunday and one on Tuesday, slowing things down and not moving on until every player fully understands their assignment.
“We’re staying basic right now,” Schoettmer said. “This defense is based on the bottom, most basic thing. Everybody is understanding it very quickly and I think we are moving along well.”
Chizik turned around defenses at Central Florida, Auburn, Texas and Iowa State, but will have his hands full with the Tar Heels, who were ranked 117th in the nation in total defense in 2014, giving up an alarming 6.5 yards per play.
“We have to be a much better football team when it comes to the discipline part,” Chizik said after practice. “The discipline of the little things we are asking guys to do when it comes to the defense.”
When Chizik arrived, he said he would evaluate the pieces on the roster before establishing a scheme. After two days on the field, it’s clear that scheme is the 4-3, something fans screamed for last season when the Heels were constantly getting torched.
“I think we have some really good players at some good spots,” Chizik said. “And we have some guys, with more experience, who will be some really good players.”
A 4-3 puts more bodies, bigger bodies on the field. Since Fedora took over in 2012 the Heels have been a 4-2-5 team, giving up a defensive end for a hybrid linebacker/end. Also sacrificing a linebacker for an extra defensive back. On most Saturdays, the Heels were undersized at too many spots, and exposed in the middle of the field.
Schoettmer welcomes the extra beef.
“We got some bigger bodies on the field right now,” Schoettmer said. “Obviously, that will help in the run.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Nazair Jones (who is up to 300 pounds) was joined in the middle by sophomore Tyler Powell, finally giving Carolina two big bodies to stop the run. DaJuan Drennon returns to his defensive end spot, while Mikey Bart lined up opposite Drennon.
Schoettmer was flanked by Joe Jackson and senior Shakeel Rashad, who spent his first three years at UNC playing with his hand in the dirt as an undersized defensive end.
Fedora said the entire team, not just the defense, has a long way to go, but he likes what he has seen so far, especially since the defensive staff got a complete overhaul in the offseason.
“I think it’s been good,” Fedora said. “Kids have been learning, it’s all different for them. They are having to really work hard to concentrate and focus on what their job is, but the guys have done a good job. They are anxious to show who they are.”
Spring 2015 UNC defense
DE – DaJuan Drennon, SO, 6-4, 250
DT – Tyler Powell, SO, 6-4, 290
DT – Nazair Jones, SO, 6-5, 300
DE – Mikey Bart, JR, 6-3, 270
OLB – Joe Jackson, JR, 6-2, 225
MLB – Jeff Schoettmer, SR, 6-2, 235
OLB – Shakeel Rashad, SR, 6-2, 245
CB – Brian Walker, JR, 5-11, 185
S – Sam Smiley, SR, 5-11, 190
S – Dominquie Green, JR, 5-11, 190
CB – Des Lawrence, JR, 6-1, 185