CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While North Carolina’s schematic change from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 has been the offseason talking point, the teaching method employed and the fundamentals involved will have a more significant impact on the 2015 Tar Heel defense.
As the yards and points piled up and the records of futility fell on the defensive side of the ball in 2014, UNC head coach Larry Fedora maintained his belief that the 4-2-5 base defense was sound in its design. And he was right.
TCU has fielded one of the top defenses in the country for the better part of two decades utilizing Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5. South Carolina and Florida State have both relied on the scheme against spread opponents in recent years, and even Vic Koenning, the man responsible for last season’s collapse, directed top-20 defenses at Troy, Clemson and Illinois before arriving in Chapel Hill.
The 4-2-5 may have taken the brunt of the blame for 2014’s woeful performance, but the primary culprits were abundant and differed depending on who you asked, ranging from a lack of leadership to a deficiency of talent on one axis, and to a complexity of scheme to a disconnect between players and coaches on another axis.
Despite the underlying current of discord radiating from last season’s defensive fallout, Fedora was tasked with answering questions at the ACC Football Kickoff last week about the schematic change to a 4-3 under Gene Chizik in 2015.
“I don’t know that it’s an easier scheme,” Fedora said. “It’s all about how you teach the scheme that makes it easier. That’s an age-old question: what’s better, a 3-4, a 4-3 or a 4-2-5? You can win with any of them… It’s about how do your players fit your scheme, and then do they truly believe in the scheme?”
Chizik’s track record – two national championships, one as a head coach at Auburn, the other as a defensive coordinator at Texas – had an immediate and profound effect on the confidence level of UNC’s current defensive roster, according to Fedora.
Chizik’s approach to spring ball was simple and effective. The defense was tasked with learning the base defense in 15 days of practice. There was no rush, and no time for any man left behind. If a player struggled to learn a concept, the entire unit was taught again.
Senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer estimated the defensive staff installed roughly half of the defense in the spring. The base defense was reinstalled over the summer, and it will be taught from the ground up a third time in training camp.
“We’re learning it multiple times,” Schoettmer said. “I think that’s really going to help guys pick it up because each time you learn it, you pick up something that maybe you didn’t catch the first time. The way they teach it and the way they coach it, it’s easy to pick up.”
Chizik studied last season’s game film and found a strong concentration of miscues in tackling and tracking angles, according to Schoettmer. The new coaches harped on those types of fundamentals during spring ball.
Linebackers coach John Papuchis, for example, familiarized his position group with new drills on film before practicing the drills on the field. After practice, Papuchis would then show his linebackers film of how that particular drill would relate to actual game situations.
“We just went back to basics and did a lot of tackling drills,” Schoettmer said. “We were way more physical in the spring than we ever have been. We were doing tackling drills every day.”
Proper tackling technique has become even more important as spread offenses attempt to stretch the field and force defenders to make plays in space. That’s why UNC’s switch from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 may be a bit overblown.
“Nowadays, you’re going to have nickel on the field the majority of the games anyway,” Fedora said. “If you can go back and count and see how many times you’ve got three linebackers on the field, you’re probably talking about 10-12 percent of the game. But you’ve got to have a base.”
The primary difference, from a personnel standpoint, is the addition of a second true defensive end to replace the bandit, a quasi-linebacker type that was all too often overwhelmed by power run offenses. To make up for the size disadvantage up front, Koenning’s scheme relied on defensive line slants, but as Schoettmer put it, if a lineman was pushed into a third gap, the breakdown was difficult to read on the fly and correct appropriately.
Chizik has cut out the bulk of the slanting and is instructing his defenders to stay in their assigned gaps, even if there is movement out of the backfield.
“Time’s going to tell, but I think we’re going to be better on defense,” Fedora said. “Now, is that going to be because we went to a 4-3? I don’t know.”
Simplicity Over Scheme
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