CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A fresh approach and an abundance of bodies in the defensive backs position group is helping to erase a maligned recent history.
In the 2013 season opener, it took three plays for South Carolina’s Connor Shaw to connect with Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown pass against North Carolina. There was not a glaring defensive breakdown on the play; rather, it was the combination of a cornerback that had gotten beat to the inside on a post route and a safety that had not dropped back deep enough.
As the Tar Heels prepare for its second opener against the Gamecocks in three years, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and his staff are intent on teaching the proper technique and fundamentals involved to avoid the demoralizing explosive plays that result from minor miscues.
“Right now, we’re focused more on techniques,” junior safety Dominquie Green said. “Techniques and fundamentals. Fundamentals are going to kill you a lot throughout the whole game. When you’re tired and your fundamentals are alright, you’ll be able to stick to the play.”
The primary emphasis for the secondary in training camp has been tackling, according to Green. UNC missed roughly 60 tackles in its first two games alone against FBS competition in 2014.
The teaching component has extended far beyond the proper form of tacking.
“You’ve got to be able to teach these guys the game of football because they are 18,” UNC secondary coach Charlton Warren said. “They don’t know. They just were the best player on their high school team and they ran around. We’re trying to teach them concept and theory.”
That increasing depth of knowledge has built the secondary’s confidence level and in turn simplified the thought processes involved.
“We have our job and we do our job, not other people’s job,” senior safety Sam Smiley said.
Warren’s buzz phrase is “in phase,” which means that a defensive back is in proper position to defend a skill position player. Being “in phase” is a determining factor in whether or not a defensive back turns his head to make a play on the ball.
“If you’re there to make the play and you know where your receiver is at, you follow your technique as far as looking back at the ball,” Green said. “But other than that, you go with the technique of playing hands if you’re out of phase. If you’re in phase, you know what you’ve got to do.”
After battling a numbers issue in the back end in recent years, UNC has rebuilt its roster with enough bodies to foster a competitive environment without overly taxing its players. Eight current Tar Heels have combined for 82 career starts in the secondary.
More than a dozen defensive backs are competing for spots in the two-deep.
“As defensive backs, we do get tired,” Smiley said. “You may think we don’t, but we do get tired running after receivers in this offense we’re going against play after play. The depth means a lot to us and it enables us to stay healthy.”
Smiley, who UNC head coach Larry Fedora has labeled as the leader of the secondary, knows a thing or two about the challenges of staying healthy after dealing with a foot injury for a significant part of his career. With more players able to contribute, the starters can stay fresh and the defense can better absorb injuries.
“It’s a good feeling knowing that you’ve got depth,” Green said. “If the second string is in, there’s not going to be a change in the defense. If the third string is in, there’s not going to be a change. Everybody’s playing at the same level and has the same capabilities.”
The combination of depth and improved fundamentals creates more opportunities for turnovers, which along with explosive plays are the two primary statistics Fedora uses to grade his defense.
“They all can run,” Fedora said. “They’re all in great shape. They can run, they’re very athletic. They’ve made some really nice plays this fall already just with picks. We had two big plays [on Wednesday] with No. 37 (T.J. Jiles) and No. 2 (Des Lawrence). Both of them made two big picks in a game.”
Depth, Instruction Boosting Secondary
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