North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has turned a number of defenses around in short order throughout his career. At Clemson, Kansas State and Illinois, he turned weak defenses into strengths and in Year 2, all three were top-20 or better.
But last year, his North Carolina defense didn’t get better as the year went along, adjusting to Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme. It got worse.
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“It’s the first time I can remember a group that I was responsible for not being better at the end of the year than the first of the year,” Koenning said.
Of course, when he and co-coordinator Dan Disch got to UNC a year ago, they were surprised at how much they had to teach the players they inherited beyond the scheme itself.
“We had guys who had no idea how to get off a block. Their footwork, I couldn’t even believe it. They didn’t understand how to step and get off a block,” Koenning said. “It was like starting all over last year. But a lot of those guys were first-year players, too. … Now, we’re counting on those two guys to be dynamic players for us. So that’s just what a year’s time of teaching them what to do and how to do it and where to do it.”
There were injuries towards the end of last season for UNC, and the Tar Heels’ quality of opponent got better as the year went on, too.
But when the Tar Heels closed the year giving up 68 points to Georgia Tech at home and then 38 points to a Maryland team with a linebacker at quarterback, it was clear any confidence they might have gained with some promising performances early was gone.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora thinks he has seen that confidence return in fall camp. But he won’t really know until Thursday night at South Carolina.
“The only way you gain confidence is to have success. You can talk about how you’ve got it all you want but until you actually do it, you never know,” Fedora said. “I do think our guys feel better about where they are than they were at the end of the year last year.”
There are still plenty of question marks surrounding this defense. UNC returns most of its starting secondary, but that is the same secondary that repeatedly gave up big plays a year ago.
But it’s not like South Carolina doesn’t have some issues offensively, too. At least in theory.
The Gamecocks were 82nd nationally in total offense last year, but they could run the ball very well with Marcus Lattimore in the backfield. Now, they have some unproven (but talented) backs and a younger offensive line, including a freshman center.
But they’re much bigger than the Tar Heels up front.
South Carolina’s starting five offensive linemen average 322.4 pounds while UNC’s front four average 271.3. The Tar Heels are well aware of that size advantage, but they feel like their quickness up front will help negate that.
“South Carolina has a huge line, guys 6-8, no guy probably under 315, so just being able to run around those guys will definitely work to our advantage,” UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said. “We’re not as big, so it’s definitely important for us go around them as opposed to just trying to take them on because we’re lighter across the board at a lot of positions. We’ve just got to find a way to make it happen.”
South Carolina had five 300-yard passing games last year. Three were against major-conference opponents (just one against an SEC team), and one was against Clemson.
Both of South Carolina’s dual-threat quarterbacks (starter Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson) are back, and both should be a year better.
It won’t take long to know how far North Carolina’s defense has really come. In front of a lathered-up Columbia crowd, they will have to go out and get stops their first few series. It’s something the Tar Heels struggled to do last year, often falling behind by a huge deficit early before clamping down in the second half.
They won’t be able to get away with that in Columbia.
“Defensively, we have to go out there, we have to hopefully force three-and-outs their first few series so they can’t gain that momentum so the crowd gets out of it a little bit because when you’re playing in a stadium 80,000-90,000 people, all it takes is a few big plays and the energy in the crowd is just great,” Martin said. “We’re definitely going to try to suck the energy out, get them as least involved as possible early on.”
But the Gamecocks have plenty of weapons, and all it takes is one missed assignment on the back end for UNC to give up a huge play, or even a touchdown. It happened at Louisville last year in UNC’s first road game, as the Tar Heels nearly overcame a 36-7 halftime deficit but couldn’t quite.
Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater gashed the UNC secondary seemingly at will in the first half and the Tar Heels couldn’t wrap up and tackle anyone, seemingly. It was a problem that haunted UNC as the year went on, and so the Tar Heels worked extensively on open-field tackling in fall camp.
“The way the game is now when offenses are spread out and they get you in one-on-one situations out in the open field. If you don’t make that tackle it becomes a big play,” Fedora said. “So we have done a lot of 1-on-1 tackling in the open field. Our coaches have done a great job of teaching it. The other part of it is you’ve got to understand what you’re doing. Know your job and do your job. Simple from that point.”
The Tar Heels bring back a lot of experience defensively, and some older players that have shown enormous potential, like Bandit Norkeithus Otis and linebacker Travis Hughes. But none of them have proven they can do it in a game. And there will be freshmen that see reps, like at strong safety where freshman Dominique Green is listed as a potential starter.
The unknowns surrounding his defense are both exciting and nerve-wracking to Koenning, but more the latter. Particularly as his group won’t have a chance to warm up with an FCS opponent. But at least he’ll know where the defense is after Thursday night.
“You don’t know who’s going to emerge. I’m hoping we have a whole bunch of guys emerge. That’s that funny thing about confidence,” Koenning said. “That’s why typically, you don’t want to roll in there and play a top-five team first game, but it is what it is. That’s fine. It’ll give us a great challenge and we’ll see where we’re at. Hopefully, those guys will emerge.”