On Sunday evening Doc and Paul came over to the house to do a little editorial planning for the coming year. In deciding which one of us would write about the various position groups, I drew the proverbial short straw and got the secondary.
Do we really have to talk about last year?
Yes, yes we do.
To be fair, the pass defense in general wasn't statistically as bad as the defense as a whole in terms of yards per game average. UNC was 104th in pass defense with 257.4 ypg allowed. However the yards per attempt stat was 121st with UNC surrendering 8.5 yards per passing play. Much of that can be explained by UNC giving up 39 pass plays of 25 yards or more which was third worst in FBS. The Tar Heels also gave up 87 passing plays of 15 yards or more which was 121st overall. For the season UNC gave up 31 touchdowns through the air, which was in the bottom ten nationally.
Obviously the statistical picture is the stuff of nightmares but what happened on the field to produce those numbers was even more hair raising. No one play encapsulates the 2014 season for the secondary as much as the first touchdown scored by Clemson in UNC's 50-35 loss at Death Valley The play, which can be seen here, was such a complete breakdown, the Tigers actually had two receivers running wide open behind the defense.Click image to enlarge
It's not that UNC was consistently picked apart by even mediocre quarterbacks or they gave up yards by the buckets. The manner in which it happened was profoundly disturbing. It wasn't one thing but everything that went wrong. Scheme, coaching, fundamentals, general chemistry, you name it and it was off last season.
The play of the secondary was so bad UNC getting flagged for defensive pass interference was actually a considered a positive development. Sure the defender didn't turn around to play the ball hence the flag but at least he was in the right place and it was only 15 yards. The defense was awful in ways that words won't do it justice.
Nowhere to go but up
UNC hit rock bottom defensively in 2014 so it's reasonable to assume some improvement is the offing. The question is how much? That is difficult to quantify but it largely rests on whether the execution errors that happened at alarming rates last season can be reduced in significant fashion. UNC doesn't have a talent problem. Granted the Tar Heels aren't necessarily loaded with elite talent in the defensive backfield however the players UNC does have should translate to better than what was seen last season.
From a personnel standpoint, UNC has plenty of experience with just one newcomer listed in the preseason depth chart in the form of strong safety J.K. Britt. The only notable loss was Tim Scott to graduation. Scott led the team with seven pass break-ups and had one interception. Brian Walker led UNC with three interceptions and five pass break-ups while M.J. Stewart had a two interceptions.Sam Smiley and Des Lawrence each recorded an interception last season. UNC's 13 interceptions was 55th nationally and matched the 2013 total for the team.
That probably proves how little that stat tells you about the caliber of a pass defense. If UNC is to improve in the secondary making life more difficult for the opposing quarterback is key. Obviously the front seven have a role in that but the importance of executing assignments and covering receivers. That seems simply enough but last season it wasn't. Too often opposing QBs had their pick of open receivers and the results were disastrous. Eliminating those kinds of breakdowns coupled with improvements in containment and tackling should reduce the big plays and perhaps get the defense off the field on 3rd down more often. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik clearly has this in mind having noted the emphasis on simplifying the defense, taking time to ensure players understand even the simplest concepts and investing heavily in teaching proper tackling.
The question is whether all of that properly translates to the field. Many of UNC's defensive woes, particularly in the secondary were imminently correctable with the right coaching. Vic Koenning and his staff had lost the players and as the death spiral reach terminal velocity, fixing the defense was nearly impossible. With a new staff and a coach of Chizik's credentials the confusion and breakdowns of last season should be less frequent. The pass defense can't and won't be cured in one season but a long step forward could be enough to get the pass defense out of the national cellar.