Prioritizing the Defense

UNC scaled back on its offensive tempo to aid the defensive learning curve this spring.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Larry Fedora scaled back the tempo during spring practice at the expense of his offense to allow for defensive growth in the new 4-3 scheme under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.

Fedora has often described his offense’s performance last season as average. Statistically, UNC’s offense ranked at or near the top of the ACC in a number of offensive categories, although the numbers are less flattering when adjusted for tempo (UNC led the league in plays with 1005).

“The bar is high,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told at a Rams Club Tar Heel Tour event last week. “We were very average to below average last year offensively and disappointed with the way it played out over the whole year. A lot of that was inconsistency.”

Given how effective Fedora’s up-tempo spread system can be, his frustration is understandable. Yet, the offense’s struggles are nothing to those that overwhelmed the Tar Heels’ defense in record-setting fashion in 2015.

During the offseason, the remedy to those woes came in the form of Gene Chizik, who arrived after a brief departure from football following his dismissal from Auburn two years after leading the Tigers to the 2011 national title.

“It’s kind of been rejuvenating, actually,” Fedora said. “You’ve got Gene, who comes in with a wealth of knowledge. He’s won a national championship as a defensive coordinator, he’s won it as a head coach, so he obviously has a perspective on things.”

The first thing Chizik and his new defensive staff did was reteach his players the fundamentals of football. In short, this unit needed to start from the ground floor.

Then there was the new scheme. During Fedora’s first three seasons in Chapel Hill, his team ran a complex 4-2-5 scheme under associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning. UNC has returned to a more traditional 4-3 alignment under Chizik.

The shift in philosophy meant that some players would have to move to a new position. It also meant that there would be a lot of reshuffling in terms of the depth chart.

“For some of those guys, it was starting over for them,” Fedora said. “It was totally different. Some of them adjusted quicker than others, but I think right now I could say that all of them have a very good feel for the base.”

In order to give the players time to acclimate to their new surroundings on the field, the pace of practice had to be altered, even if it temporarily limited what the offense could do.

“It hindered the offense a little bit because we held back on the tempo because I wanted to give the defense an opportunity to learn what they were trying to learn, and so it was a give-and-take thing for both sides,” Fedora said.

As concerned as Fedora may be with improving and perfecting his HUNH offense, he has recognized that he has to be patient with all of the changes that have occurred on the other side off the ball. Going forward, the hope is that by allowing the defense to absorb those changes, UNC’s new coaching staff will be able to build a concrete foundation for long-term success.

“We’re still going to have to work together until those guys feel confident on the other side of the ball that they’ve got what they need,” Fedora said. “… But, I think in the long run, it will make us a better team.”

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