Defense Buckles Down

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – North Carolina closed its spring practice season at Rocky River High School on Saturday, and it was the defense that won the day in the third and final scrimmage opportunity.

Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic put the offense’s initial woes into context with a simple phrase following an early 3-and-out: “That’s embarrassing.”

UNC’s defense, which has been tasked with putting the disastrous 2014 season in the past while learning Gene Chizik’s new 4-3 scheme, delivered hard hits, sure-handed tackles and physical pass breakups in holding the offense to just one touchdown in its first 10 situational possessions.

“It just shows how far along we’ve come this spring,” senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer told reporters after the scrimmage. “We’ve really been working and we’ve gotten a lot better. You can see as a spectator that our tackling has gotten better, our physicality has gotten better, technique... Just everything we do has gotten better. It showed today.”

Without three members of the defensive tackle two-deep – Justin Thomason and Tyler Powell and Nazair Jones – available, the number of scrimmage snaps gradually wore down the line’s interior. At one point, roughly an hour in, all four defensive linemen caught their breath with their hands on their hips after a run play.

“It’s hard to play in there for 50-60-70 reps in a scrimmage,” linebackers coach John Papuchis said. “I think we did wear down as the scrimmage went on.”

By then, backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the first-team offense had established a rhythm and found a consistent level of success for the remainder of the scrimmage.

Injuries have plagued the offense’s skill positions as five starters – quarterback Marquise Williams, running back T.J. Logan and wide receivers Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins – were either out or limited on Saturday.

“After the first two series, the guys started to get together,” said Williams, who spent the day with a clipboard in his hands. “Mitch came on and started checking the ball down and going through his progressions. The guys finished well. I think it was a good scrimmage today.”

Regardless of the offense’s finish, the defense’s start was the key takeaway from UNC’s 15th and final practice of the spring.

When asked if the offense’s late surge was due to better execution or the defense tiring out, UNC head coach Larry Fedora offered a frank assessment: “I think it was probably the defense started to get worn down there towards the end, but early on, I thought the defense was playing really well.”

Papuchis pointed to consistent effort through spring ball – a strong “care factor” – as being evident at the high school field.

“I think we came out and started well,” Papuchis said. “I think towards the end we didn’t finish the way I would have liked for us to have finished, but that’s maturing and growing as a group. There were flashes from a lot of guys of playing well throughout different parts of this day.

“We need to build on the positives and learn from the negatives. If we can continue to do that and keep tallying up the reps and the experience within this scheme, we’ll be getting to where we want to be come September.”

Papuchis reiterated that while spring practice may have drawn to a close on Saturday, the offseason program started on Sunday.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Fedora said. “I wish I could say we’re there right now, but we’re not. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

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