Buck: Chizik's Impact

How much and how soon can Gene Chizik improve the UNC defense? That’s the question for the offseason, and the question on which the 2015 season is likely to hinge.

Beyond documenting how poorly the defense performed in 2014, there is very little else about the defense from last season, or the previous three seasons, that helps inform us about next year’s UNC defense. Because everything has changed.

Gone is Vic Koenning. Enter Gene Chizik. That change alone signals a host of other differences. Chizik runs a totally different type of defense—a 4-3 defense, and a specific type of 4-3 defense, a “Tampa 2.”

Gone are the hybrid positions we’ve learned about the past three years, the “Bandit,” and the “Ram.” The Bandit was a linebacker/defensive end hybrid—the fourth defensive lineman in the “4-2-5,” and the Ram was a safety/linebacker, a fifth member of the secondary.

Chizik will instead employ two defensive ends, two defensive tackles, three linebackers, and four defensive backs—the defense employed by North Carolina since the days before Mack Brown. He’ll have nickel and dime packages, but the base defense will be much different than what UNC has utilized the past three years.

The question is how will the UNC roster “map” to the 4-3? That question necessarily requires more speculation than actual knowledge—only Gene Chizik can address that question, and he will likely form his own conclusions only after getting through spring practice.

Defensive Line

Instead of a linebacker-sized fourth defensive lineman, Chizik, if he follows his past practice, will employ two defensive ends and ask both of them to attack the edge. It has not been his practice to use one defensive end as a “contain” type defender, rather he asks both defensive ends to beat their man to the outside—though there will be some variety based on down and distance. There will be a nose tackle and a “three-technique” defensive tackle.

In the book 2008 Coach of the Year Clinics, Chizik provides some insight into how his defense interacts between units. Typically, we think of a defensive line’s responsibility as keeping the linebackers “clean,” so they can make plays.

Instead Chizik says:

“We do not tell our linemen they have to suck up all the double-team blocks on the line. We tell our linebackers they are pulling the offensive linemen off the defensive linemen on all these fits.”

In short, Chizik expects his defensive linemen to make plays.

Chizik, in a video on the SECDN, explained the defensive ends in a basic 4-3 defense this way:

“These guys are your speed guys that come off the corner, you see all the guys in the NFL that make all the money; those are the guys that get the sacks.”

This year Dajaun Drennon and Junior Gnonkonde both played the same defensive end position. Both are 6-4, 250 pounds. Both have good speed for their size. Will Chizik leave both these players at one defensive end spot, or play them as book ends on either side of the line?

This is the type of question that only Chizik will be able to answer as he reviews the roster, watches tape, and finally sees them in practice. It is the type of move, however, that would not be surprising as North Carolina transitions from the 4-2-5.

Shakeel Rashad and Mikey Bart are a rising senior and junior, respectively, and both should line up at defensive end in Chizik’s system. Jessie Rogers, though he is 6-4 and 280 pounds, might also transition to defensive end, though he is larger than ends in Chizik’s system.

Early enrollee Jalen Dalton could be a factor, but as oozing with potential as he is, he’ll only be 17 years old when North Carolina faces South Carolina in Charlotte for the 2015 opener.

What Chizik wants is speed guys on the edge. They are not there to soak up blocks, they are there to make plays.

In the same video noted above, Chizik talks about his defensive tackles as “disrupters,” whose job is to get penetration, a “wrecking crew.” He describes their job further as “see ball, hit ball.”

The primary beneficiary of this philosophy is Nazair Jones. Only a red-shirt freshman in 2014, Jones often appeared to be the primary “disrupter” among the defensive tackles.

From his defensive tackle spot, Jones had 2.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, 35 tackles, two QB hurries, forced a fumble, and added four pass break-ups and even an interception—and a 20-yard return. From a position not known for producing a lot of numbers, those are not bad stats, particularly for a red-shirt freshman playing his first year of college ball.

But Jones can, and should, do more in Chizik’s defense with a year under his belt.

Another youngster that showed promise was true freshman Tyler Powell. Though he had some injury issues, he demonstrated that he has some skills at defensive tackle. Justin Thomason is a rising senior that could also benefit from a fresh defensive approach.

However, more defensive tackle youngsters are on the way, and several could have an impact in 2015.

At nose tackle, Robert Dinkins is an intriguing prospect. The 6-1 Dinkins may weigh three bills by the time spring practice begins. He’ll only be a red-shirt freshman, but he’s always displayed a “tough guy” persona that will serve him well at nose tackle. Jeremiah Clarke was a highly rated defensive lineman that may also hit 300 on the scales before spring practice. Finally, true freshman Aaron Crawford is already a big-bodied defensive lineman that could possibly play early.

Those newcomers could possibly be joined at tackle by a more familiar name—Shawn Underwood. Ruled academically ineligible to play in 2014, rumors abound that he is working hard to regain his eligibility. Underwood would provide a much-needed experienced upperclassman to the mix at defensive tackle.


In terms of UNC’s roster and mapping it to the changes a 4-3 defense will bring, the linebacker unit presents the most challenges.

First, the two linebacker spots previously employed by UNC will expand to three linebacker spots—the MIKE (middle), SAM (strong), and WILL (weak) positions so familiar to North Carolina observers prior to the introduction of the 4-2-5 defense.

What type of linebackers? Using Chizik’s words from the video, “Three speed linebackers, don’t care how big they are, they just have to be able to hit and run.”

Where will these linebackers come from?

Starting at middle linebacker, there is no shortage of bodies on the UNC roster. However, in Chizik’s defense the role of the middle linebacker changes significantly. In the “Tampa 2” defense, the middle linebacker is more than just a downhill run-stuffer, he has middle of the field coverage responsibilities so that the “Cover 2” defense, with two deep safeties, morphs into a “Cover 3” defense, with the middle linebacker essentially becoming a third safety in the middle of the field.

That requires a specific type of skill set. Rising senior Jeff Schoettmer has ably filled the middle linebacker role for two seasons. He has been second on the team in tackles in both those years. Though his athleticism is likely underestimated and underappreciated, the question is whether he can meet the specific requirements of a MLB in Chizik’s system. Chizik’s middle linebacker at Texas, during their championship year, was Rashad Bobino, 5-11, 228 pounds. At Auburn his middle linebacker was Josh Bynes, 6-2, 235 pounds.

One player that is highly likely to find a spot among the starting linebackers is Cayson Collins, a rising sophomore. Collins’s play as last season developed was one of the few bright spots defensively. Through seven games Collins had only six tackles, but increased playing time as he acclimated to the college game allowed him to finish with 36 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a fumble return. Where will he line up in Chizik’s system? That remains to be seen, but he’ll likely be in contention to start at some linebacker position.

As noted above, Chizik is flexible when it comes to the size of his linebackers. One potential position change could come at linebacker, with Donnie Miles transitioning from the extinct RAM position. At 5-11, 200 pounds, Miles is the same size as some players previously used by Chizik. Darren Bates was such a player at Auburn in 2010. Allen Artis, at 6-1, 205 pounds, played safety as a true freshman and is another player who could potentially transition to linebacker. He has used larger linebackers at times, but seldom larger than 230 pounds.

Other than Schoettmer, Collins, and Miles, there are obviously other choices at linebacker. Nathan Staub, Dan Mastromatteo, and Joe Jackson are players with experience, while a host of other younger players will be at his disposal. Tyrell Tomlin, who played as a true freshman on special teams, and Malik Carney, Cameron Albright, and Ayden Bonilla all have the size (all three are 6-2, 210 pounds currently) who could get a look at linebacker as well as safety.

January enrollee Andre Smith is a prototypical middle linebacker in Chizik’s system, while Jonathan Sutton is a verbally committed player who could also contribute in 2015.

There will be no lack of bodies to work with at linebacker, it will just be a matter of which of these players adapt to the 4-3 Tampa 2 defense Chizik will employ.

Defensive Backs

The picture is not as cloudy at defensive back, but there is one unknown. Both starting corners, rising juniors Brian Walker and Desmond Lawrence, return, as does free safety Dominique Green. Though, like the entire defense, the secondary underperformed in 2014, but the experience and talent level there is encouraging.

With the departure of Tim Scott, however, there is a hole to fill at boundary safety. This is where it gets interesting, as Chizik will have several options. Malik Simmons was a sometimes starter at the RAM position, having moved there from cornerback. He is one option there. Sam Smiley, the sixth leading UNC tackler from 2014, is an experienced player and a rising senior.

The more intriguing possibility is moving Desmond Lawrence from corner to one of the safety spots. This could be made possible by shifting M.J. Stewart to corner. Though an interesting idea, North Carolina will be overloaded at safety because of the elimination of the Ram spot, so from an overall depth perspective for both corner and safety, it may make more sense for Chizik to fill Scott’s position with a former Ram, like Donnie Miles or Malik Simmons, than shift Lawrence from his corner spot.

However, Lawrence was the third-leading tackler on the team in 2014 with 71 stops, including 46 solo tackles.

In terms of the Tampa 2, it is typical for the secondary to play zone coverage and “keep everything in front of them.” Chizik will, however, employ blitzes, and he likes to blitz from a variety of positions on the field. This will put the members of the secondary on an island in man coverage on occasion. Being able to play both man and zone coverage is something he will require from all four members of the defensive secondary.

Defense: A Teacher

In the coaching book referred to above, Chizik spends far more time describing his teaching techniques than he does his specific defense.

“I think football coaches get away from the game by trying to be X’s and O’s gurus,” Chizik says.

Chizik then goes into great detail about how he teaches his players, his practice regimen, how he teaches tackling—and gets specific about that fundamental. How it is taught, at what tempo—the details.

In his section of the book, a chapter of 20 pages, Chizik mentions the word “teach,” “teaching” or “taught” 20 times. He mentions that his father was an educator and a Marine.

What has made Chizik so successful as a defensive coordinator is probably more due to his emphasis and focus on teaching than on a specific set of X’s and O’s.

This is the part of the off-season that will be most critical for the UNC defense.


This is an excerpt from a larger article that will appear in the March 2015 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

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