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What the Tar Heels can expect from Gene Chizik in Year 2

Gene Chizik looks to complete his rebuild of the Carolina defense in 2016.

UNC's Gene Chizik Ethan Hyman/News & Observer

Gene Chizik was one of the key hires to Larry Fedora’s staff following a tumultuous 2014 campaign that saw the Carolina defense perform at a historically dismal rate. The hope coming into the 2015 season was that the two-time national championship coach and defensive guru could, at the very least, make the unit respectable.

UNC’s defense in 2015 could be best described as practicing a “bend but don’t break” philosophy. In Chizik’s first year in the booth in Chapel Hill, he produced a defense that was markedly improved from the units former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning oversaw. The Carolina D ranked 42nd in the Division 1 in scoring defense, allowing 24.5 points per game, up from the 39.0 gifted in 2014. Carolina’s secondary gave up an impressive 188.6 passing yards per game, up from 257.4, and was good enough to rank 18th best in the nation.

Even with the noticeable improvements, Carolina still has glaring concerns on the defensive side of the ball heading into fall camp. Carolina allowed, on average, 435.9 yards per contest, a slight improvement from the 497.8 surrendered in 2014. While the rushing defense, slipped from a 240.5 yards per output, in 2014, to a disappointing 247.4, in 2015.

Opponents may have had their way with the Carolina D when driving down the field but when it came to red zone defense, Carolina came out clean over 20% of the time --- ranking 34th in that category. All in all, Chizik’s bunch finished 2015 rated 95th in total defense, giving up close to 435.9 yards each time out. Although not the complete turnaround, Chizik’s work found him as a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, which recognizes College Football’s best assistant coaches. That should say enough when it comes to the media’s expectations of the Carolina defense coming into 2015 and what they should be going into 2016.

From Year 1 to Year 2, in a system, is said to be where the most improvement is made. Conventional wisdom says that a defense that returns seven starters should follow suit with this methodology. By far, the biggest improvement that needs to be made in 2016 is with how the Tar Heels defend the run. That all starts with junior DT Nazair Jones, senior DE Mikey Bart and junior DE Dajaun Drennon who will all be looked upon to sure up the holes found in the defensive line in 2015.

Carolina is set up to have considerable depth up front for the first time in years. Sophomore DT Jeremiah Clake should play a larger role in the middle, with the departure of Justin Thomason, after seeing action in 13 games during his redshirt freshman season. Defensive tackles Tyler Powell and Robert Dinkins also should figure into the teams two-deep. How former 4-star DE Jalen Dalton performs this year, after being thrown into the fire in 2015 after coaches reconsidered a redshirt year due to depth issues, could be the factor that further elevates the ceiling for this defense. Tomon Fox, who enters as one of Carolina’s more highly touted prospects of the 2016 cycle, like Dalton last year could see some time as a true freshman.

John Papuchis’ linebacking corp will also need to play a major role in shutting down opposing rushing attacks. For as great as Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad were, the pair struggled at times to fill gaps against some of the top rushing attacks in the ACC. Sophomore linebacker Andre Smith showed flashes, in his true freshman campaign, of being someone who could potentially be a force in coming years, but sat out the spring recovering from injury. This allowed for former reserve Cayson Collins, who showed his potential with a 10-tackle performance in the comeback win at Georgia Tech, to step into a key role this spring.

JUCO transfer J.B. Copeland also gained valuable reps in his first camp working in Chizik’s defense, while early enrollee Johnathan Smith worked his way into a role that should see him getting reps in the opener against Georgia. How this new linebacker corp comes together in fall camp, in congruence with the front four, will determine how soon Carolina is able to consistently stop the run this season.

The secondary assuredly helped Chizik sleep peacefully most nights last fall and that should be the case again in 2016. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence teamed up last year to earn second and third team All-ACC honors, respectively. The return of Stewart and Lawrence, coupled with leading returning tackler Donny Miles’ return at safety, should maintain the prowess of the Carolina secondary. It will be important to find consistency from younger players like freshmen Myles Dorn and Patrice Rene, who both had strong springs, along with sophomore safety Cameron Albright paired with the experience of Dominique Green and J.K. Britt to build quality depth behind the known commodities of Stewart, Lawrence and Miles.

Carolina’s offense is set up to perform close, if not above, last season’s totals. The addition of a more accurate passer, in Mitch Trubisky, at quarterback should only elevate a passing game that saw Marquise Williams rewrite the majority of Carolina passing records over the past two years. The difference between the Heels repeating once again as Coastal division champs and earning a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl could come down to the continued development of a Chizik-led defense.