There was a common theme of disconnect during Vic Koenning’s three-year run as UNC’s associate head coach for defense from 2012-14. While his players consistently talked about the complexity of his 4-2-5 scheme, Koenning countered with details of scaling back his game plan for simplification purposes.
The schematic dissonance was evident dating back to the first loss of the Larry Fedora era when UNC missed 24 defensive assignments at Wake Forest on Sept. 8, 2012. The excess of missed assignments reached its extremity when the Tar Heels committed 37 against East Carolina in September 2013.
While missed assignments remained a concern in 2014, poor tackling had taken over as the primary defensive issue. For example, UNC missed four assignments in 81 defensive snaps but gave up 50 points in its loss at Notre Dame after missing roughly 70 tackles in back-to-back games against San Diego State and East Carolina.
Exit Koenning and enter Chizik.
As UNC concludes spring ball this week with its four remaining practice opportunities, Chizik and his defensive staff have taken a bare bones approach that has stressed concepts before scheme and fundamentals before anything else.
“There’s a lot less right now, that’s for sure,” Fedora said when asked about the complexity of the new defense. “Gene and those guys have decided how they’re going to install things and they’re really working extremely hard on the base and the fundamentals of what it takes to play in that base defense. They’ve just been spoon-feeding them as they’ve gone.”
Chizik didn’t begin installing elements of the Tampa-2, which has long served as his schematic stamp, until UNC’s 10th spring practice last week. Up to that point, his emphasis had been on constructing a base defense for each of the key situations, such as red zone, pressure and nickel.
While the defensive staff had mapped out a spring game plan, the speed at which that plan is implemented is up to the players.
“You can’t necessarily always go to the next thing if you’re not ready,” Chizik said. “We’re trying to make sure that they grasp concepts. You keep moving forward based on whether or not they’re gaining knowledge and understanding of your concepts.
“Of course, there are going to be things that we don’t execute in practice, but as a whole, they’ve done a really good job of understanding what we’re trying to do. So we’ll keep moving in that direction. We’ve got the plan laid out and we’ll keep moving in that direction, provided they keep making progress.”
Senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said the new defensive coaches went over topics that he had learned in the fifth grade on the first day of spring ball.
“They basically came in and taught it to us like we didn’t know football at all,” Schoettmer said. “They started with the very basic things and left no stone unturned. That’s how they taught it to us. I think that was the best way to do it because we have a lot of young guys on this team that don’t fully understand the concepts of football.”
Schoettmer shared the example of Chizik introducing a Cover-4 coverage by explaining how the coverage was designed and what it was intended to do. The previous staff, on the other hand, jumped directly to the installation process.
“If someone doesn’t get it, they will reteach the step,” Schoettmer said. “I think that’s really been beneficial for us.”
The starting from scratch method is not an isolated event due to the coaching staff change, according to Chizik.
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m here one year or 10 years, every year will be the same,” Chizik said. “We’ll start from ground zero. We’ll build concepts. We’ll build the foundation of the defense and then we’ll move forward with that. That will never change. It doesn’t matter how long you are at one place. There’s a systematic approach to how we teach defense.”
In addition to the teaching style, the 4-3 scheme will provide for an easier understanding of a player’s responsibility.
One obvious change is in how UNC will fit the run – with three linebackers instead of two linebackers and a defensive back – which should deliver more punch at the point of attack. Schoettmer said other differences include how the defense reads guards and running backs as well as defensive line motion.
Koenning relied on slanting and stunts to offset his line’s size disadvantage and maximize its speed and quickness.
“This year we’re playing more in the gaps,” Schoettmer said. “Your gap is aligned from the start, so if the running back motions, we’re not changing gaps on the fly. That’s your gap, so things like that are simplifying it.”
There is some indication that the process is working. While miscommunication in UNC’s second scrimmage resulted in a pair of Kendrick Singleton 80-yard touchdown receptions – courtesy of two defensive backs blitzing instead of just one – the defense stopped the offense 13 out of 16 times in a third-down blitz period last week.