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UNC Football: A new defensive mindset will be needed in 2017

In 2017, UNC will have to rely on their defense more than they ever have under Larry Fedora.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

At the risk of opening up old wounds, let me remind you of that 2014 defense. They gave up 70 points to ECU, 47 to Miami, 50 to Clemson, 43 to Georgia Tech, and 40 to Rutgers. Their run defense, in particular, was miserable: they gave up 240.5 rushing yards per game, good for 119th in the country. It was too much to bear at many different points throughout the year.

With the hiring of Gene Chizik in 2015, the ship was righted, at least a little bit. Though rushing defense was still bad, their overall defense improved from 120th to 42nd nationally in 2015, then remained virtually even at 43rd in 2016.

Now, four seasons later, the freshmen on that 2014 defense will lead a 2017 group that will have to take on a bigger load than we’ve ever seen out of a Larry Fedora team.

Listen, Coach Fedora’s defenses will never be the stymying juggernauts you see at Alabama or Ohio State. UNC does not have the football philosophy nor recruits to deliver that kind of presence. A decent-but-sometimes-great-when-push-comes-to-shove defense is the best you can ask out of Carolina year in and year out, but in 2017, they may have to be more than that.

With UNC losing virtually all of their skill players on offense, the defense may be asked to step into a more dominant role. They’ll certainly have that opportunity. Jake Lawrence already previewed the defensive line, but UNC has an experienced, heavyweight gang of rushers that will have a lot to prove come September 3rd.

The secondary, led by All-ACC corner M.J. Stewart, should be fine. The linebacker corps, featuring preseason All-ACC selection Andre Smith, will also be fine. However, with Naz Jones gone and a rushing defense that has consistently been one of the worst in the ACC for years, the defensive line will have to step up to the plate in a big way in 2017.

This raises the $64,000 question: is the defense ready to take the next step? As already touched on, the defense showed flashes of greatness in the past, especially in big time situations. Malik Carney, who will probably be UNC’s best defensive lineman in 2017, strip sacked Miami’s Brad Kaaya last year to seal the victory, and the defensive line forced a huge three-and-out to set up UNC’s game winning drive versus Pitt. We know that they have the capability to make these kinds of game changing plays, but stringing them together for an entire game or an entire season will be much tougher.

Things are going to be different in 2017. This Larry Fedora team will not have the hallmarks of past rosters. Historically, UNC’s superb offenses have more than made up for subpar defenses. That will not be the case this year. Instead, UNC may have to mold their team’s identity and success around defense.

That’s something that likely hasn’t been uttered in Chapel Hill since the Butch Davis era. However, this is a perseverant, flexible program, and elevating his defense won’t be the biggest challenge that Fedora has had to face. They’ll adapt.

Expect less shootouts in the 40s and 50s that have defined UNC football since Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill. Instead, prepare yourself for more 20-13 slugfests, more turnovers (on both sides of the ball), and more defensive stands.

It ain’t pretty, but it’s been sorely missed in recent years. The spotlight is on them now. If the defense can take that next step, there’s no telling what their ceiling will be in 2017.