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UNC Football: Three Things to Watch - Spring Game Defense

Can the weak link on last year’s team show enough growth to push Carolina forward?

Capital One Orange Bowl - Texas A&M v North Carolina Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Whatever platitudes were heaped on UNC’s offense last season, the opposite could be said about the defense. Gene Chizik’s squad hit all of the lowlights: no pressure on the quarterback, chunk plays given up time after time, secondary too far off of receivers, and not enough turnovers. It was a mess!

But hope springs eternal, and this spring, Gene Chizik and his revamped secondary need to give Tar Heel fans hope! Here are three things to watch on the defensive side of the ball at the Spring Game.


Hopefully Drake Maye and Conner Harrell don’t feel like throwing that many picks, but does the secondary look capable of turning other teams over? Last season, UNC only had nine interceptions in 14 games. Three of them came from starting linebackers Cedric Gray and Power Echols. Cornerback Storm Duck led the team with three, but he (and his oft-injured toes) are off to Penn State next season.

Carolina’s best bet for a defense that compliments its offense isn’t necessarily one that shuts down opponents and holds them to under 10 points a game. We’re not going to see rapid improvement like that. But we can expect the offense to put up points and force opposing teams to have to put the ball in the air to keep up. Pick off at least one (or ideally 2-3 per game!) and now you don’t need the defense to pitch a shutout to win games. Give Drake Maye and the offense more series to score with, and you’ll start to see Carolina cook.

Where will Q play?

Carolina’s defense needs a healthy Ja’Qurious Conley back on the field. With a careful return to live action, Conley should be a go for the 2023 season, but where will he line up. As a freshman, he was a physical terror at nickelback, where he used his size to blow up running backs closer to the line of scrimmage. As a sophomore at safety, he showed some playmaking potential, grabbing two interceptions and scooping up a fumble recovery.

With Cam’Ron Kelly gone, only Will Hardy remains on the starting depth chart. During his true freshman season, Hardy showed toughness and potential, but will he be enough with an increased snap load?

Will Chizik see the need to put Conley closer to the LOS to blow up plays rather than putting him in space and exposing him to deep speed? I like DeAndre Boykins at nickel, but I LOVED Conley there. Let’s see if Conley splits time during the Spring Game, or looks locked in on one particular position.

Who will get sacks?

Last year’s spring game saw Des Evans record multiple sacks. He had none in the regular season and only one TFL. Virginia transfer Noah Taylor and the Butcher Kaimon Rucker tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks apiece.

That dog won’t hunt.

Offseason hype comes at the feet of Florida State transfer Amari Gainer. During his Seminole career, he collected six sacks and 19 TFL, but coaching changes moved FSU towards a beefier style defensive end. Gainer now finds himself learning the Jack position. Will it result in more sacks?

Carolina should hope so. Just like the secondary didn’t get enough interceptions, the defensive line (and team as a whole) didn’t sack the quarterback enough, collecting just 17 (while the offensive line gave up 40!). Worse still, UNC fans can surely remember plenty of times that opposing quarterbacks stood like statues on third and long, surveying the field until just the right pass became available for a timely first down.

No! More!

Gainer and company need to get more pressure on quarterbacks, and they need to get home. This is a virtuous cycle that will help the secondary not get torched, and hopefully force more interceptions. If not, at least get the defense off the field and let Drake Maye and the offense get back to work.