Coming into the 2016 season, fresh off of an embarrassing loss to Baylor that ended an otherwise excellent 2015, there was one big question on every UNC fan’s mind: Would the run defense be good enough to not lose the Heels games?
It looked troubling. While the interior defensive line was looking to be solid, with Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton both being proven players, the defensive end position had lost Junior Gnonkonde to transfer and Dajaun Drennon, at least temporarily, to injury. In their place, Mikey Bart had some good moments in 2015, but it was unclear if he was ready to start, and Tyler Powell on the other side was a complete unknown.
The unit behind them didn’t look too promising, either. With the loss of star linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, the linebacking corps looked especially vulnerable with very few proven players left. Cayson Collins had had a couple of decent years and Andre Smith had flashed his freshman year, but other than them, the names at linebacker were mostly unfamiliar.
However, we tried to reassure ourselves Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik had worked wonders on a roster with similar questions in 2015. Surely 2016 wouldn’t be all that bad.
The season opener against UGA and Nick Chubb, one of the best running backs in the country, wasn’t an ideal game for a much-questioned run defense, and in the first two snaps, all of these questions were seemingly validated:
These two plays showed two different types of inability. In the first one, Georgia’s offensive line completely takes out the Tar Heel defensive front. Defensive ends Bart and Malik Carney, #45 and #53 respectively, as well as Jones, #90, get completely stonewalled, and that’s really the best result the Heels’ front has on this play. Tackle Jeremiah Clarke (#49) gets put to the ground by a pretty light push by the Georgia lineman and Holcomb (#36) gets taken out by a cut block he didn’t see coming. Chubb is limited to six yards on the play thanks to great secondary play, Donnie Miles cutting him off, and Des Lawrence finishing the job in the open field, but this kind of domination was very worrying.
The second play isn’t as bad in the trenches, but here, the entire defense just gets out-run. Several players do get taken out of the play, which isn’t great, but Carney and Collins should both have good shots at him. Carney’s pursuit angle isn’t bad at all for a defensive end, but his angle is destroyed by Chubb’s speed. Collins, however, is far too aggressive in the open field and ends up giving up an extra eight yards because he didn’t flatten his angle enough. Chubb likely would have gotten the first down either way, but that was earned though his speed and his line’s good play. The extra yardage was given up by UNC.
It didn’t really get better for most of the game, though there were moments like this:
Andre Smith goes through untouched and finishes a tackle on Nick Chubb, which is no easy task solo. This was one of a few plays this game that gave me hope that the linebackers would not be horrible this year, but I was one of very few.
This game really wasn’t as bad as several would have you believe. Chubb did run for 222 yards, but that was on an unheard-of-for-college-regular season 32 carries, and besides his game-sealing 55-yard touchdown after the defense had been worn down, he ran for a good-not-great (for a back of his caliber) 5.4 yards per carry. What received less attention, but was far more worrying, was Georgia’s 3rd-string running back, filling in for Sony Michel (one of the nation’s better backs in his own right), Brian Herrien, running for 8.4 yards per carry. This was what worried me going into the next few games, even though they were against teams that weren’t very good.
The game against Illinois was fine for the most part, except for this early play:
This is just a breakdown on every level: The line is stonewalled and creates a wide lane for the Illinois back, the linebackers fail to find him and only run into blockers, and the secondary, for some reason, is caught on the other half of the field, totally fooled by the receivers’ routes even though there wasn’t any misdirection on the play.
James Madison was probably the worst run-defended game of the year, but highlights aggregators don’t care about FCS teams, so I can’t show you any gifs. I was at the game, though, and can confirm the line that was repeated several times on this site: Nazair Jones was sorely missed. James Madison repeatedly won in the trenches and the Dukes’ running backs were able to get 4-5 yards without having to create for themselves at all. Three games in, it seemed as though the naysayers had been right.
Pittsburgh was a mixed bag. Star running back James Conner was held to 4.1 yards per carry, half a yard below his season average, so that was good. This was courtesy of, for the most part, really good edge discipline, like in the .gif below.
Conner is unable to find an opening to burst through, and ends up with a minimal gain. The initial tackle attempt by Lawrence is poor (granted, he has just finished fighting off a block from a much bigger player), but the Heels do well to follow the ball and use the boundary, not letting Conner maximize the broken tackle. There were also plays like this that gave some hope that things were changing with the defense. This kind of effort and finishing ability just wasn’t a frequent sight earlier in the season:
Sure, the run goes for eight yards, but against Illinois or JMU, this may have been a touchdown. The will to stay with the shoestring tackle and finish it, against a very good running back, showed shades of the kind of effort that made 2015 possible and had been lacking in 2016.
The less said about Virginia Tech the better, so I’ll keep this part brief. The defense, as I wrote after that game, didn’t deserve to have 34 points on the record against them. All three levels of the defense played well; they were just placed in very, very bad situations by anemic offensive play. That they played well was due at least in part to Hurricane Matthew, but we were definitely seeing a different defense than we had to start the season.
The Florida State game is probably the best point of comparison between the beginning and middle of the season, because of the caliber of the running backs faced. Personally, I think Chubb and Dalvin Cook are 1a and 1b as far as the best running backs in college football go, so the difference in performance should be informative. Chubb: 32 carries, 220 yards at a 6.9 YPC clip (31 carries, 165 yards at 5.4 without the 55-yarder). Cook: 29 carries for 140 yards at a 4.8 YPC clip. Plays like this became more and more common:
The line holds position here, instead of being blown off the ball like they frequently were against Georgia, and by maintaining their spaces, they allow the frequently-maligned linebackers to shoot the gap and get the running back, not giving Cook room to explode anywhere. The change in scheme has been written about on this website, but I don’t think the scheme alone explains it. There had been a change in effort, a change in playmaking ability, from the beginning of the season to now.
Both games that UNC has played since the FSU game have been labeled UNC’s “Best Defensive Game of the Season” by various writers, including some here on THB. With plays like this:
(Compare these two to the very similarly designed plays in the two Georgia plays shown above)
becoming almost the norm with UNC defense, it’s not hard to see why.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the emergence of linebacker Cole Holcomb starting at the middle of the season. Holcomb has taken nearly every UNC fan in the world by surprise by being arguably UNC’s second best linebacker this year since about the Pittsburgh game. Before the season, Holcomb was voted “Most Likely to Surprise People” by his teammates, and his play has done just that starting midseason. Watch him make the play in the last .gif, for example. He stays on his feet, reads the play correctly, and makes the tackle. He plays smart and he plays hard, and I suspect he’s inspired the rest of the defense, and certainly the linebackers, to keep up with him.
It’s still far too early to call UNC’s run defense a strength, but it is safe to say that it’s definitely no longer the liability that many thought it would be. They’re playing smart, tackling well, and making effort plays, all things that were absent when the season started and all things that UNC fans have been clamoring for from their defense for several years. It’s play like this that UNC has to continue if the Heels are to finally win a bowl game for the first time since 2013, and, more importantly, should they manage to win the Coastal, have a chance at winning the ACC.