Defensive Questions Linger

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – UNC head coach Larry Fedora provided a list of bullet points on Monday that were not responsible for his team’s defensive meltdown in Saturday’s 70-41 loss at East Carolina. Concrete answers were not available and may not be easy to come by.

The questions Fedora fielded at his weekly press conference ran the gamut from practice and scheme to personnel and effort.

“Anytime you have that kind of result, you’ve got to look at everything,” Fedora said. “It doesn’t mean everything you’re doing is wrong, but you’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to evaluate every little detail to find out if you still believe what you’re doing is the right thing, and I still do believe that.”

The third-year UNC head coach told reporters that he believes the way his team practices is the right way and a proven way, and therefore his practice approach will continue as normal.

Fedora didn’t see any of his players give up on the field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and doesn’t believe effort was an issue. Fatigue, however, may have played a role.

“I think we’ve got some guys that were tired on defense,” Fedora said. “We really did. When you spread the field and you miss a tackle in the open field and you’ve got guys that are tired, they don’t get there as quick and it results in explosive plays. And you saw a bunch of them.”

ECU gained 10 or more yards on 28 plays, including 11 that went for 20-plus yards. The Pirates, who set school records by a UNC opponent in points, offensive yards (789) and first downs (39), averaged 8.1 yards per play.

Fedora was hesitant to blame his personnel, instead pointing to basic fundamentals.

“When you miss tackles in space, it’s a tough thing to do,” Fedora said. “Sometimes you can say that’s personnel, sometimes you can say the guy that made them miss was better than they were in making the tackle, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s a breakdown of fundamentals.”

UNC missed 34 tackles in its 31-27 win over San Diego State on Sept. 6. Fedora didn’t know the total number of missed tackles from Saturday’s loss.

The final defensive component Fedora addressed was associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme.

The background surrounding Fedora’s proclivity for the 4-2-5 is revealing. After allowing 29.5 points per game in his third season running a 4-3 at Southern Miss in 2010, Fedora looked across the college football landscape and liked the versatility of Koenning’s defense at Illinois.

Illinois was the third program in six years that Koenning had developed into a top-20 defense nationally by way of his 4-2-5 scheme, which leans heavily on 3-4 concepts. Fedora couldn’t get a power conference defensive coordinator to move to Hattiesburg, so he hired Koenning’s linebackers coach – Dan Disch – to install the defense instead.

The Golden Eagles ranked 28th in scoring defense and 29th in total defense in 2011 as Fedora led his program to the Conference USA championship. Fedora eventually hired Koenning once he took over UNC’s program in December 2011.

Given that history, Fedora brushed off the notion that a change in scheme was needed.

“There’s a lot of people running the 4-2-5 all over the country that are fine,” Fedora said. “There are people all over the country that have trouble with this type of offense. It is what it is. Whether you’re in a 4-3 or a 3-4 or a 4-2-5, you’ve still got to make plays. You’ve got to put your guys in a position to be able to make plays.”

Regardless of Fedora’s support for the 4-2-5, the criticism directed at the scheme following Saturday’s is misguided considering that Koenning wasn’t able to run his base package.

Due to injuries to UNC’s entire three-deep at bandit – only Norkeithus Otis was cleared in the days leading up to Saturday – the defensive staff was forced to move weakside linebacker to bandit, creating a scheme that was equal parts 4-1-6 and 3-2-6 as an extra safety was inserted to offset ECU’s Air Raid passing attack.

The man-free approach was effective for roughly 20 minutes before the Pirates established their running game and UNC’s attempt at keeping ECU one-dimensional collapsed.

“I couldn’t find a way to help them,” Koenning told reporters following the game.

Fedora highlighted the bye week shift as one that proved problematic.

“Maybe the scheme that we used within the 4-2-5 in the game wasn’t the best thing that we needed to do,” Fedora said.

UNC will look to draw on its 2012 defensive dismantling by Georgia Tech as a way to move forward this week in preparation for Clemson on Saturday. After giving up 68 points to the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels turned around on a short week and held Virginia to 13 points and 350 yards.

“All we did was we put that game to bed as quickly as possible, tried to learn from the mistakes we made and then we moved on as quickly as possible,” Fedora said, “because, I can assure you, there’s nothing that’s going to help us defeat Clemson if we dwell on what happened this past week. It won’t help us in any way.

“So it’s not about dwelling on what happened last week, it’s about where do we go in the future and how do we get better.”

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