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Opponent Breakdown: North Carolina Defense

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UNC hoped to build on a solid defensive performance under Gene Chizik. Then he retired.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

North Carolina hasn’t been known for their defense during Larry Fedora’s tenure. However, things seemed to change over the last two years under Gene Chizik. UNC ranked highly in pass defense and helped the team stay out of shootouts every week. Chizik decided to retire after the season to spend more time with his family. Chizik’s departure was surprising and left Fedora with another hole to fill on a team that lost a lot on offense.

John Papuchis was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after Chizik retired. Papuchis was Bo Pelini’s DC at Nebraska up until Pelini was fired. There’s not a lot to know about tendencies with him but he didn’t vary his looks against a spread look from Cal last week. UNC only blitzed a couple of times but their front four were able to get some pressure on the quarterback. He switched between a nickel and dime package mostly but still rushed four the majority of the time.

The defense for the Tar Heels had some very real positives last week even though Cal piled up a lot of yardage. UNC’s defensive front all but shut down the Cal running game. Aaron Crawford played extremely well at defensive tackle and really made it hard for Cal to get anything going in the run game. Crawford also did a great job pushing the pocket on passing plays and getting the quarterback’s feet moving. Jalen Dalton was kicked out of the game after one of the worst targeting hits I’ve ever seen lines up at the other tackle spot. Dalton was a highly rated recruit that has waited his turn but if he can’t display better judgement, he might not be on the field much. Dalton’s backup, Jason Stowbridge, played well and likely gave the coaches a good feeling about rotating him in more often.

I was really impressed with the pass rushing abilities of the defensive ends. Malik Carney really stood out to me. He ended up with one sack against Cal but I really felt that he got into the backfield and made the quarterback uncomfortable a handful of times. Carney could be a real test for Mechi Becton in his second game. The front four made Cal’s quarterback bail out of the pocket multiple times but they didn’t bring him down when they did that. He was able to get space and complete passes that ended up as big plays. Purdue wasn’t able to make Lamar too uncomfortable even though he chose to bail out a handful of times. It will be interesting to see if UNC can get pressure with four. That could help them out when it comes to covering Lamar’s options as well as keeping him to shorter runs when he scrambles.

The entire linebacker group returned for UNC and they played well on Saturday. I was especially impressed by their skills in pass coverage. Andre Smith plays in the middle and he not only ran with Demetris Robertson (The #1 ranked WR in the 2016 class) on a crossing route, he kept up with him, picked off an errant pass, then nearly outran Robertson to the endzone. Cole Holcomb and Cayson Collins didn’t make any highlight plays but they both bring the experience you need to feel comfortable that everyone is taking care of their assignments. All three of these guys can play in coverage (Holcomb had some struggles) and they all fly to the ball. As impressed as I was with Purdue’s linebackers, I think that UNC has guys that are just as sound but more athletic.

One thing that stood out to me in the Purdue game is that Markus Bailey stayed in and covered slot receivers even in obvious passing situations. Cayson Collins plays that role for UNC but he wasn’t on the field nearly as much because they were in the nickel a lot. Collins is a playmaker that I think they need to get on the field more but I’m not totally sure how they do that when people spread them out. The dime package for UNC will really going to be something to keep an eye on because it leaves Andre Smith on an island and Lamar Jackson will eat them alive if that’s the case.

The UNC secondary was really good last year even though it wasn’t tested much. Much like Purdue, teams chose to run the ball against them because UNC couldn’t stop them. In the Cal game, the UNC secondary played pretty well but they also gave up way too many big plays. Part of the reason for this (maybe even most) is that the pass rush failed to get the quarterback to the ground. That left the secondary in a spot where they had to keep up with their man for an extended time. Also, playing man coverage on every play leaves you open for wheel routes and swing passes and Cal scored on both.

Papuchis kept the defense in a man under defense with two safeties high. That is literally the most popular defensive play in Madden. UNC was in nickel or dime for most of the game and they ran straight man across with Andre Smith responsible for the running back. There’s no way that they can do that against Lamar Jackson. Cal’s quarterback didn’t run the ball until a 3rd and long in the fourth quarter and he pretty much jogged for the first down. Everyone has their back turned to the quarterback and the safeties are 30 yards away after the snap. I’ve been writing this post for 6 years and I’ve never seen anything as basic as this defense.

What I think we will see from the Tar Heels is a man-zone hybrid with linebackers in zone and outside corners in man coverage. Their safeties will play in short zones with the corners giving cushion with no help over top. M.J. Stewart is one of the best corners in the country and he played inside against Cal’s slot receivers. I could see that happening again as UofL really targeted inside guys and even played Jaylen Smith there a lot. Myles Dorn and Donnie Miles both showed outstanding ability to play downhill against the run and fly to the ball. I think UNC will take advantage of these guys as contain players against the zone read plays and scrambles from Lamar.

The question that I’m sure UNC’s defensive coaches are asking is if the other corners can hang with Louisville’s receivers. Lamar Jackson completed a lot of passes including some quick ins and slants against man coverage. Can UNC get to him before those throws? If not, those are easy completions for him that he will take all day. If UNC can’t get pressure at all and they don’t have safeties over top, Louisville will take more deep shots which they didn’t do last week. UNC defensive backs not named M.J. Stewart got beat a lot against Cal. UofL will likely look to do the same this week.