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2013 Season Preview: Linebackers and Secondary


Here's a fun way to cause yourself a little agony on a slow day. Pull up the box scores for last year's Carolina football games. Take a gander at the Tar Heels' opposing receivers. And then look at their longest gains on the day. N.C. State's Tobias Palmer had an 83-yard touchdown reception. His teammate Bryan Underwood scored from 55 yards out. Corey Fuller of Virginia Tech took a touchdown in from 66 yards, while Georgia Tech's Darren Waller didn't score on his 63 yard catch. All in all, twelve different receivers had catches of 35 yards or more against the Tar Heels last year, and when you consider some of the lightweights on UNC's schedule, that's a pretty scary number.

Which isn't to say UNC's secondary didn't have flashes of brilliance. Hell, Tre Boston's name might as well be Flashes of Brilliance. UNC led the ACC in interceptions with 16, and held opponents to the third-lowest passing efficiency, behind Florida State and Virginia Tech. But they gave up almost 247 yards a game through the air, and in a true low point allowed Maryland, a team being quarterbacked by a converted linebacker, to score 28 points and gain 304 yards in the first half. At times the defense played like UNC's high-octane offense only worked if the the other team was putting up just as many points.

What's worse is that the defense only got worse in the tail end of the season, as UNC gave up 30+ points in our of their last five games. This is especially disconcerting as the team's problem was understanding the new defense installed by Associate Head Coach for Defense Vic Koenning and defensive coordinator Dan Disch. This season they're joined by co-defensive coordinator Ron West because title proliferation is apparently what we do now. West had the same co-position at Arizona State last season, where the Sun Devils had the third-best passing defense in the country. So there's a concerted effort to fix UNC's flaws if nothing else.

UNCs passing defense woes can be traced to three problems. First, the secondary kept getting thinner and thinner as the season went on. The Heels are already off to a bad start in that regard this year, losing Sam Smiley for the season. They've also converted receiver Damien Washington to safety to try to backstop that position. Carolina returns most of last year's crew, and thanks to those injuries there's a lot of game experience spread around. Jabari Price and Tim Scott at the corners are great and aggressive, having more tackles for loss than most of the returning linebackers; they'll be the strong points of the defense. And then there's Boston at free safety, the most frustrating member of the defense. A preseason first team All-ACC, he was capable of some amazing feats and had four interceptions and a team-leading 67.5 tackles. And yet his aggressiveness drove him to bite on some bad fakes and give up big plays. He supposedly has been working on staying home more this camp, and if his decision-making has truly improved there's no limit to what he's capable of this season.

UNC's second problem is the ram position, a cross between a safety and an outside linebacker. Not sure what that entails? Don't worry, the Tar Heel players had similar troubles grasping the concept. Gene Robinson and walk-on Pete Magnum had the greatest success in the role last season, but both have graduated, so Brandon Ellerbe has been converted from safety to take the job. I'd expect to see a lot of redshirt freshman Joe Jackson here as well.

The third and final flaw in last season's defense was their inability to put pressure on the quarterback. Much of the defensive line was the problem here, leaving the sacks almost entirely to Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams. Both are in the NFL now, leaving the linebacker corps to be staffed by Tommy Heffernan and a group of guys we hope will produce some breakout performers. Travis Hughes is most likely to impress here — he's currently ahead of Heffernan on the depth chart after a particularly good preseason. The depth chart has two redshirt freshmen battling it out fir the other linebacker slot, with Dan Mastromatteo having the inside track on Nathan Staub. Hopefully one of the two will step to, if not Sly Williams level, then at least strong starter material. The ACC is stocked with good quarterbacks, and if they can't be brought down in the backfield, it's going to be a long season for the secondary.