Bread and butter.
Probably one of the least raised talking points heading into the season where the defense is concerned is the fact there was a change at defensive coordinator. With Everett Withers assuming the interim head coaching position following the axing of Butch Davis, Art Kaufman was promoted to handle the coordinator duties. Since this happened right before camp opened, we can safely assume much of the general scheming will be the same. However the playcalling could go in a different direction unless Withers opts to maintain that role on game day. From his initial comments when his promotion was announced, that looks like that will not be the case. Kaufman will be calling the plays for the defense which leads us to wonder if we will not a major shift in what actually happens on the field.
One of the biggest complaints about Withers was his seeming refusal to order a "code red" on the opposing QB and turn his guys loose. Applying pressure by sending more than just the defensive linemen did not seem to be a preference of Withers. Heck, like me, most of you watched in horror multiple games where Withers would rush three and drop eight in a team's two minute drill giving the QB six years to make a play. Given the strength of the defensive line, the relative skill level and speed in the linebacking corps and the uncertainty in the secondary the dilemma is this: Do you turn the dogs loose and hope the pressure on the QB produces a more erratic passing game for the opposition or will Kaufman opt to hold personnel back in an effort to shore up potential gaps in the secondary? While there are legitimate concerns about the secondary, how the defensive side of the ball is called by Kaufman and Withers may have a bigger impact on how this unit performs.
Here are the position breakdowns using the Week 1 depth chart(courtesy Inside Carolina)
Left Defensive End
90 – Quinton Coples (6-6, 290, Sr.)
93 – Tim Jackson (6-5, 265, So.)
Left Defensive Tackle
92 – Sylvester Williams (6-3, 315, Jr.)
96 – Ethan Farmer (6-3, 280, Fr.*)
Right Defensive Tackle
91 – Tydreke Powell (6-3, 305, Sr.)
78 – Jordan Nix (6-3, 290, Sr.)
Right Defensive End
98 – Donte Paige-Moss (6-4, 260, Jr.) OR
95 – Kareem Martin (6-6, 260, So.)
Hands down the anchor of the defense. UNC returns All-ACC performer Quinton Coples who was an absolute beast playing as an interior linemen last season despite being slightly undersized for the position. Coples gets to move back outside with JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams and senior Tydreke Powell manning the middle. People can't stop talking about Williams and how impressive he has been from spring practice until now. Powell had 47 tackles a year ago, three of them for a loss to go along with 2.5 sacks. Donte Paige-Moss and Kareem Martin are in a battle for the other end position. Withers praised Martin yesterday as the "most consistent defensive end in camp." Paige-Moss was second on the team in sacks last season with seven. In other words having Coples on one end and the combination of Martin and Paige-Moss on the other end will be a nightmare for opposing offensive lines especially given how much size Williams and Powell bring to the middle. UNC's ability to win the line of scrimmage and dictate of what opposing team does on offense will be paramount to assisting the secondary.
47 – Zach Brown (6-2, 230, Sr.)
9 – Travis Hughes (6-2, 225, Fr.)
48 – Kevin Reddick (6-3, 240, Jr.)
55 – Tommy Heffernan (6-1, 215, Fr.*)
41 – Ebele Okakpu (6-2, 225, Sr.)
23 – Darius Lipford (6-3, 230, So.)
Two known commodities and one I had not really heard of before I saw the depth chart. Yes, really. Okakpu has spent most of his three years at UNC playing on special teams with some reserve linebacker work to his credit. In eleven games last season he registered nine tackles. To say UNC is lacking options at the third linebacking slot is an understatement. Okakpu's backup, Darius Lipford, played a limited role last year as well. Both of these players will be pressed to really step up their respective games. The good news is UNC still has Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick to man the other spots. Brown and Reddick were one and two in tackles last season, despite splitting time in some games with Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant. With both of those players battling injuries at different points in 2010, Brown and Reddick really raised their play up a notch to compensate. Aside from leading the teams in tackles, Brown and Reddick combined for five interceptions. UNC's front seven are an impressive bunch, the Sam linebacker not withstanding.
10 – Tre Boston (6-1, 190, So.)
16 – Alex Dixon (6-0, 180, Fr.)
28 – Jonathan Smith (6-2, 210, Sr.)
29 – Brian Gupton (6-3, 200, Sr.)
25 – Matt Merletti (5-11, 200, Sr.)
1 – Gene Robinson (5-11, 190, Jr.)
7 – Tim Scott (5-11, 180, Fr.) OR
13 – Todd Harrelson (6-2, 195, Jr.)
The proverbial Achilles heel of the UNC defense, at least that is the way it is being sold. You will note Charles Brown is missing from the above list. Brown will not play versus James Madison because the NCAA feels that sitting out 13 games for an academic issue is not enough to cover for $86 in improper benefits. Brown must therefore sit one more game. When he returns it will certainly shore up the secondary with some valuable experience which has, at present two freshmen, a sophomore and junior WR converted to a CB manning the corners. When Brown does return, there will be additional shuffling which might see Tre Boston go back to the safety slot. Also missing from the lineup is Jabari Price whose hand injury will keep him out six weeks. In short the the secondary will be a work in progress as the season rolls along. Brown return followed by Price down the road will mean moving players around to put the best unit on the field. The safety slots have plenty of experience and includes two players who sat all of last season with academic issues in Jonathan Smith and Brian Gupton. Matt Merletti and Gene Robinson saw their share of action a year ago amid the NCAA troubles which gave them much needed experience.
The interesting aspect of the secondary is UNC was going to be facing this particular issue anyway. Had Brown played last season and the other players been eligible for all the games, the reserve corners and safeties would have seen little action and have far less experience. The silver lining produced from the NCAA eligibility musical chairs was getting players experience they may not have gotten otherwise. Having Brown return gives UNC a top notch corner and with some significant improvement among the rest of the unit, the secondary should be fine. With the strength of the defense vested in the front seven, the secondary only needs to be adequate. The pass defense should be good enough to not make it a debilitating weakness that opposing teams can exploit in such a way as to negate the front seven. On the flip side what the front seven do in terms of shutting down the run, forcing teams to rely on the pass then putting pressure on the QB could serve to help the secondary greatly.
Coming back full circle to where we started, some of the success for the defense rides on the coaching. I think there is more than enough talent there and even with the secondary concerns, the right scheme and play calls can shore up those deficiencies. So the real question now is whether or not Mr. Kaufman is ready for his close-up?