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Can North Carolina’s defense carry a heavier load in 2017? Part I: Philosophy

With substantial losses on offense, is Carolina’s defense ready to take the next step?

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina
John Papuchis can jump and hug at the same time.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When exploring Carolina football history, only in the Larry Fedora era has the offense been the team’s identity. The exploits of Julius Peppers, Lawrence Taylor, Dre Bly, Vonnie Holliday, and the “what should’ve been” defense of 2010 have long been the calling card of the UNC program.

In this decade, that has been far from the case. Larry Fedora’s hurry-up no-huddle offense has, to the cynic, placed defense more in the role of necessary evil than focal point, and one can’t really argue with the results. A 40-25 record in the midst of never-ending NCAA turmoil is worth every penny of Fed’s new contract extension through 2022.

Under Fedora, however, the defense has been...bad, peaking at 49th overall in his first year and cratering to 120th in 2014, former Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning’s final year. A lot of it was talent— a botched first couple of Fedora classes hit home in 2014, as Norkeithus Otis and Travis Hughes represented the only blue-chip recruits getting meaningful snaps.

Having said that, I lack the wherewithal to compose a proper analogy for that final abomination. Visions of running backs getting to the third level untouched, or Tre Boston’s dreadlocks blowing in the wind as he attempted to chase down an easy pitch-and-catch 75-yard touchdown, still cause me to wake up in cold sweats on some nights.

Gene Chizik was hired on December 31, 2014. I distinctly recall being surrounded by Alabama fans who were stunned that Carolina could make such a splashy hire (shoutout to Auburn for paying him not to coach while he was in Chapel Hill). For all the hype the Chizik hire generated, the story behind his tenure was one of steadiness and teaching— not particularly flashy at all, really. Carolina converted from an attacking 3-3-5 to a base, safe, Cover 2 intended to eventually force the offense to make a mistake, or at worst kick a field goal.

The boring, consistent, and safe approach to defense was a sight for sore Tar Heel eyes. With the offense providing plenty of fireworks, the defense in 2015 limited explosive plays, forced turnovers, and just looked fundamentally better. Advanced stats still showed a porous defense, which manifested itself with two ugly performances against Clemson and Baylor to end the season, but order felt somewhat restored.

In 2016, the fruits of Chizik’s labor were more profound. While the pass defense fell off slightly (due to an incomprehensible inability to hold on to a freaking interception) the run defense improved from 116th to 72nd in Rushing S&P+, pushing the Heels back into the middle of the pack in total defense.

From an outside perspective, the Chizik era was a ‘back to basics’ change in defensive philosophy. Veterans such as Des Lawrence and Naz Jones went from busts to All-ACC performers. A plethora of young players— from Aaron Crawford, to Andre Smith, to Myles Dorn, among MANY others— cut their teeth early in their careers, and they’re all back to play under recently-promoted DC John Papuchis.

So, with that incredibly long-winded background, what do ‘Coach Pap’ and his new crew— DL Coach Deke Adams, LB Coach Mike Ekeler, and DB Coach Terry Joseph— have in store for us with the 2017 Carolina defense? Let’s explore:

Papuchis hails from the Bo Pelini finishing academy of defense, a more attacking 4-3 than what he’s coached the past two years under Chizik. Papuchis’ resume includes the legendary Nebraska defensive line including Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick in 2009, where the mantra was to create havoc with the defensive line and create opportunities for the back seven to make plays.

Adding credence to the thought that there will be a more aggressive approach is the fact that both Ekeler and Joseph coached with Papuchis at LSU and Nebraska during the peak of Pelini’s run.

Ekeler, for me, was a particularly impressive hire. I saw firsthand the work he did at Georgia in 2014-15 making Leonard Floyd a top-10 pick, and getting Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera drafted despite lacking prototypical NFL measurables. The linebacking corps were the centerpiece of the final defenses of the Richt era, and Ekeler brings the contagious energy of a six-year-old who just accidentally discovered Red Bull.

While Georgia ran a bit more of a hybrid defense than Papuchis is likely to deploy, Ekeler’s troops were notable for making plays in space at a level that exceeded expectations. Andre Smith is his prototype Wilson/Herrera, a guy who can be relied upon for 100+ tackles in 2017. Between Cayson Collins, Cole Holcomb, Dominique Ross, and many others (part II coming tomorrow!), there’s a rangy space eater on the roster, as well.

Joseph is no slouch, either. If you’ll recall with me when we thought Texas A&M was going to be an SEC power (think 2011-13), but their pass defense was atrocious? Enter Joseph. The 2013 Aggies ranked 90th in pass efficiency defense, at a pretty bad 136.48. 2014 was down to 127.86 and 66th in 2014, and 111.93/18th in 2015. Most importantly, he coaches his players to attack the ball, resulting 58 PBU’s for the 2016 A&M defense.

All of this being said, I predict a less-efficient-but-more-explosive (so to speak) defense at Carolina in 2017. The soul-crushing 15-play, 80 yard TD drives will give way to some that go 5 for 80, and others that end in a pick, or get derailed by an early sack or havoc created by a more attacking scheme.

For those like me who think “attacking D” and worry we’re right back to the Koenning era, fear not. There is a decided difference in technique and coaching, for which we can thank the Chizik regime. Secondly, and a little teaser for tomorrow: the talent and experience is a LONG way ahead of where it was at this point in 2014.