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The Reasons Why Are Many And Somewhat Debatable

When your defense is as bad as UNC has been it generates all sorts of questions. Debates range far and run very hot as to why the UNC defense is infinitely worse this season than last. The N&O's J.P. Giglio takes up the question as is pertains to the loss of several players who were tossed off the team for various offenses. Basically the assertion goes that had UNC not lost these very good players for behavior issues UNC could be boasting a very good and experienced defensnive front seven. So that ultimately leads a discussion as to what is the real reason behind UNC's defensive futility. Depending on who you ask you get different answers to that question.

It's the talent

This is the basic theory Giglio is operating under and he get's backing on the issue from ESPN's Chris Spielman:

"They have a good, sound scheme," said Spielman, who covered UNC's 35-10 loss to Virginia Tech. "I go back to talent. Talent always prevails. That's one thing that right now North Carolina is lacking.

"They [have] Division I football players but not on the highest level. Coaching usually evens itself out; but if you don't have the talent, it doesn't make a difference."

So under this theory UNC has a sound scheme and since coaching is ultimately a wash then it comes down to UNC's level of talent being beneath that of the other team. First of all I think the idea of coaching evening itself out is wrong. While college coaching includes lots of aspects outside of the game I think there are game coaches who are better than others to the point to turns the game or affects a team's overall performancne. Just ask FSU fans if game coaching matters when comparing the Mark Richt years at OC versus now with Jeff Bowden. Secondly, I am not sure I buy the talent argument. UNC has had good recruiting classes in the last five seasons with three in the top 25 and two others in the top 35. So even with the retention problem you could surmise the talent level is still better than average. Compare that to Wake Forest and Rutgers who are a combined 10-1 so far this season. The highest ranked class in the last five years for Rutgers has been 41 and for Wake it was 42. Aside from another 45th ranked class for Rutgers both these teams routinely had classes ranked between 55th and 70th. So by all rights Rutgers and Wake Forest have a talent level well below what UNC has brought in yet UNC is struggling and both these schools are winning games and holding their opponents in check on defense. So either the talent does not matter or the coaching for both those teams as well as the schemes they are using gets more production from the players on the field. And while I have steered clear of comparing UNC situation with other schools the success of Jim Grobe at Wake Forest essentially blows the talent theory out of the water. It also raises the question why Grobe can squeeze every ounce out of his players and Bunting cannot.

It's the execution.

This is the UNC coaching staff's version of events. John Bunting refuses to point to the missing players as the problem because he does not want to use excuses. He thinks the defensive problems rest on the execution so in essence he is saying the players are talented and the scheme is good but they are either too inexperienced or are not grasping the strategy. So Bunting can be commended for not calling out his players as being untalented and he is also not stupid enough to point the finger at himself. So the UNC staff has chalked it up to the players failing to execute.

Bunting points to positioning and execution as his main concerns on defense. The players, both Bunting and defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders said, were in the wrong spot at the wrong time in a 52-7 blowout at Clemson.

The Heels did correct some of those miscues against Miami, allowing only 144 yards on the ground. But Carolina still gave up big running plays, including a critical 62-yard touchdown to Javarris James in the third quarter.

On second-and-3 from Miami's 38-yard line, UNC's left end, redshirt freshman Cam Thomas, stunted to his right, opening a gap to the outside for linebacker Larry Edwards to fill. Miami's Derrick Morse, pulling from his guard position, blocked Edwards and James cut up the sideline for 51 yards before he was touched by safety Cooter Arnold.

Thus my confusion. I understand that players are responsible for learning their positions and inexperienced players might be confused on some plays. But where is the line between the players getting themselves in position and the coaches properly prepping them? If poor execution is a result of bad placement then how much of this cross does the coaching staff bear? In the example above one player make an incorrect move which occupied the linebacker and created a whole for the Miami RB to run through. So in one respect the players need to get the schemes right and make the correct plays but on the other side I think the coaching staff bears some responsibility for preparing them to handle those situations.

Tar Heel Fan's Take

I think the talent argument is spurrious at best. Good coaching can maximize mediocre talent such as the success this season at Wake Forest and Rutgers. There is still a talent gap between UNC and Miami, Clemson, etc but good coaching can close that gap. I think Spielman's glossing over the importance of coaching is a bit disingenious. I also think it is really easy to chalk it up to something as vague as execution and even player placement during the play. There is some inexperience in the UNC front seven and the injuries have not been helpful. I think the coaches could do more to maximize the player UNC does have. I also wonder if Spielman is wrong concerning the type of schemes being sound. Is it possible the defensive schemes are simply too complicated or do not properly employ the skill sets of the defensive players UNC has on the field? Could it be the players on the field might be more effective if employed in different defensive sets instead of the one being used? If players are confused with the scheme in place doesn't it behoove the coaches to change those schemes to alleviate that confusion?

If Bunting wants to keep his job I think he has to stop talking about how they need to do things better or they are close to reaching some point of success and actually start doing those things in a quantifiable manner. Comments like that make me think he is stubbornly married to a set of defensive schemes that might not work with the personnel he has and he is either unwilling or unable to change it. If after five games the defense has failed to discernably slow down four of the five opponents you have faced in my opinion that means something you are doing is wrong and changing it is perhaps the best course of action. If he is truly this inflexible then the possibility of things getting better with a coach who is unable to recognize the problems at hand is somehwere between slim and none.