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North Carolina Football: Five questions for the defense

Success will depend heavily on the defense. Can they overcome these obstacles?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Tanya asked five questions facing the Tar Heel offense as we head into the season. Today I pose five questions for the defense. I purposely ignored whether or not the run defense will improve. If it does not, the Heels may not win five games. As such, many of these questions are indirectly related to the success or failure of that run defense.

Can they generate turnovers?

We all know the Heels only grabbed one interception last year. Against the Citadel. That obviously has to change. It’s fair to assume the offense is going to go through some growing pains, especially early in the season. The defense will have to earn a few extra possessions for their brothers on the other side of the ball. In 2015 UNC’s turnover margin was +7. Last season? -2.

The good news? Last year the Heels forced 11 fumbles and recovered 13. According to cfbstats.com, that’s the most fumbles UNC has recovered since at least 2007. (Their records are only complete dating back to 2008). Those 11 forced fumbles were credited to eight different players. Six of those players return.

The pieces are in place for the turnover margin to edge back over to the positive side.

Will 3rd and 4th down woes continue?

We touched on this when we previewed the linebackers. The Heels have been atrocious on 3rd and 4th down over the years.

Since 2013, UNC have not finished above 11th in the conference in defensive 3rd down conversion percentage. Nor have they finished above 13th in total 3rd down conversions allowed. There are currently 14 teams in the ACC.

The numbers aren’t any better on 4th down. The past three seasons the Heels have finished 14th, 13th, and 13th in defensive 4th down conversion percentage. They have finished 11th, 14th, and 12th in total 4th down conversions allowed. There is often a reason the Heels’ defense seemingly never gets off the field.

There are plenty of explanations for these numbers. UNC doesn’t care about time of possession, so the offense never really lets the defense rest. Scholarship reductions and the NCAA cloud has hurt the talent and depth that chose to attend UNC. Vic Koenning was bad at teaching football. Whatever you choose to believe, the results have been ugly. That has to change if UNC is going to exceed expectations.

Is the secondary really a strength?

The secondary was a strength of UNC’s defense last season. Yet, I’m not convinced it’s been as stout as some have believed. Some of their defensive passing stats have been enhanced by the fact that they have played rush-heavy offenses, or teams have taken advantage of the porous rush defense.

Notably, of UNC’s eleven Division I opponents, seven did not match their season average in passing attempts. Six times the Heels allowed more yards per attempt than their opponents averaged for the year. While solid, these numbers are not because the Heels’ secondary was necessarily striking fear in the hearts of quarterbacks. Teams just had easy success on the ground.

Nationally, they ranked 15th in defensive pass attempts, but 36th in defensive completion percentage, 54th in defensive passing rating, and 60th in yards allowed per attempt. In other words, when teams decided to throw, UNC’s secondary was rather inconsistent. There’s even an argument they were merely...average

Dominique Green and Des Lawrence have also departed. They combined for 15 of UNC’s 46 passes broken up last season. The remaining DBs combined for 16. M.J. Stewart accounted for 11 of those by himself.

Fortunately, M.J. Stewart is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. Period. Can his compatriots in the secondary, specifically Patrice Rene, Corey Bell, and Myles Dorn, help fill in the gaps?

Can the Heels get pressure in the backfield?

Three years into the transition to the 4-3 defense, UNC hopes to get more aggressive. Hopefully that means finding creative ways to get to the QB. In 2016 UNC ranked 11th in the ACC in tackles for loss and sacks. They had 19 QB hurries….as a team. That’s the fewest since they had 27 in 2010, when the team was decimated with NCAA-related suspensions.

That lack of a pass rush is undoubtedly related to the inconsistency in the secondary we mentioned above. The inability to stop running backs before they get to the first and second level of their blockers certainly doesn’t help ease the burden of the LBs and the DBs. At least their 25 sacks last season were still an improvement on 2015 and 2014. Does that count as a sliver lining?

While the depth of the defense has been a talking point, the Heels are still replacing two starters on the defensive line. Malik Carney will help with the transition, but replacing Nazair Jones is a legitimate concern. The potential of Aaron Crawford, Jalen Dalton, and Jeremiah Clarke needs to come to fruition if North Carolina has any hope of returning their pass rush to respectability.

Will UNC’s depth last the entire year?

Much has been made of UNC’s depth, and it’s true the Heels return plenty of talent across the field. However, these Heels aren’t so deep that they can sustain a similar rash of injuries as they were forced to last year. Much of that depth relies on freshmen and sophomores, or juniors with a history of injuries.

What happens if Aaron Crawford, Jeremiah Clarke, or Jalen Dalton miss time at defensive tackle and UNC is left with just two ACC-caliber players on the interior?

Jonathan Smith earned positive reviews in his brief playing time last year before an injury cut his season short. If starting MLB Andre Smith goes down, will he be ready for an increased role?

Granted, you could “what-if” these scenarios until you’re blue in the face. Yet, last year the following players missed playing time:

Nazair Jones: 1 game
Ayden Bonilla and Tyler Powell: 3 games
Jason Strowbridge: 4 games
Marlon Dunlap: 6 games
Dajaun Drennon and Robert Dinkins: 7 games
Jonathan Smith and J.B. Copeland: 8 games
Tomon Fox: 11 games

While injuries are part of the game, UNC’s depth largely depends on many people on that list. That doesn’t take into account that Copeland, Dunlap, and Dinkins are no longer with the program.

UNC must avoid similar luck with injuries or multiple All-ACC candidates will have to emerge. In a perfect world both scenarios would take place.