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UNC Football: Defensive coordinator hiring “To-Do” list

There’s a big mess to clean up. Here’s what the new DC has to do right away.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 North Carolina at Clemson Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The news of Gene Chizik’s departure from Chapel Hill was not shocking. Carolina football face-planted for the second consecutive season, and most fingers pointed squarely at the defense.

Gene Chizik could point to “Team Defense” statistics as proof of UNC’s progress under his hand. In Jay Bateman’s last year in charge of the defense, Carolina was abysmal. Statistically, Chizik showed modest improvement when he took over the headset in 2022:

· 2021 #105 Team Defense (32.1 ppg, 418.6 ypg)

· 2022 #102 Team Defense (30.8 ppg, 436.5 ypg)

· 2023 #75 Team Defense (27.3 ppg, 404.4 ypg)

The points and yards surrendered were getting ever-so-slightly better, but it was like throwing a water bottle at a burning building. Additionally, as the season wore on, results became ever more dire. Chizik’s “bend don’t break” defense transformed into a “bend so hard that everything shatters into a million pieces” defense.

Carolina arguably played their best defense of Chizik’s tenure against Syracuse, holding the Orange to just 7 points, before showing some wobble in a big win over Miami. The wheels fell off against Virginia, and then the car exploded at Georgia Tech.

Mack faces the most important coaching hire of his second tenure at Carolina. The Tar Heels enter a period of unprecedented uncertainty next season. They will not have a generational quarterback for the first time to cover up any defensive deficiencies. The defense may have to win games for UNC! What issues will the new defensive coordinator have to address? There’s quite a few.

Stop the bleeding

As mentioned, offense has never been a problem in Mack 2.0. If the Tar Heels aren’t going to win shootouts anymore, the defense must become more stout. Giving up 27.3 ppg won’t get the job done if you’re not confident that you can score four touchdowns every game.

Yards on first down need to go down. Sacks need to go up. If turnovers become more regular, that’s gravy on top. But more important than interceptions or fumble recoveries (which rely on some level of randomness) is control. The Tar Heels need better control at the line of scrimmage and need to dictate terms to the offense.

Improve the players

Mack Brown started his second tenure in Chapel Hill absolutely on fire on the recruiting trail. But for all the four and five-star talent, how many have broken through to become All-ACC performers and future NFL players?

Here’s a breakdown of some recent recruiting classes and how they’ve turned out:

2020

· Tony Grimes (4-star): Transferred to Texas A&M, underwhelmed

· Des Evans (4-star): Possibly back for a fifth year, incremental improvement

· Ja’Qurious Conley (4-star): Cruelly cut down by injury

· Myles Murphy (4-star): Declared for the NFL Draft, never quite reached expected heights

· Kedrick Bingley-Jones (4-star): Transferred to Mississippi State

· Cedric Gray (4-star): Standout player, going to the NFL

2021

· Keeshawn Silver (5-star): Never broke into the starting lineup, transferred to Kentucky

· Jahvaree Ritzie (4-star): Can’t crack the starting lineup

· Power Echols (4-star): Solid starter

2022

· Travis Shaw (5-star): Can’t crack the starting lineup

· Malaki Hamrick (4-star): Who?

· Sebastian Cheeks (4-star): Transferred to Wisconsin because UNC only plays two linebackers

· Tayon Holloway (4-star): Transferred to Louisville despite getting good playing time and a long leash, head-scratcher

Folks, that’s a lot of talent that hasn’t generated enough impact players. Except for Cedric Gray and (potentially) Power Echols, who are you going to remember in ten years? The new defensive coordinator needs to help develop this talent into top-tier players.

Recruit… the transfer portal

The transfer portal has been so foundationally disruptive to college football and how teams are constructed, I’d argue that it’s more important to recruit the portal than high schools.

Freshmen are so rarely ready to play college football on day one, they’ll have to sit. As we’ve seen in the past two years, players are preserving their redshirt and if they aren’t playing as much as they feel they should, they’ll transfer. So instead of spending a scholarship and roster spot on an 18-year-old that needs time to develop, why not recruit a redshirt freshman or sophomore out of the portal? You weren’t going to get four years out of him anyways, and now you can scout based on college competition.

The new defensive coordinator should have their finger on the pulse of the transfer portal. They should quickly identify transfer targets, evaluate how they’d fit into Carolina’s scheme, and convince them to come to Chapel Hill.

Build depth

Hand-in-hand with the transfer portal, the new DC needs to play more players. This will presumably keep some talent from transferring out, and should prevent more late-season slides. The last two seasons have seen collapses from the team when the offense could no longer carry the defense across the finish line.

In the first six games of the season, UNC gave up just 21 ppg. In the last six games of the season, they surrendered 33.2 ppg (38.4 ppg if you take out the Campbell result). Depth isn’t easy to build because you risk early results blending in young, inexperienced talent. But the time to take that risk is now. We have two consecutive seasons of data on what it’s like when you don’t. And it’s awful.