CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Charlton Warren is serving in his first season as defensive backs coach at the University of North Carolina. He comes to UNC from Nebraska where he worked with UNC linebacker coach John Papuchis. Prior to his stint with the Cornhuskers, Warren spent nine seasons at the Air Force Academy, including the final six seasons as defensive coordinator. Warren played defensive back for Air Force from 1995-1998, the final two seasons with Larry Fedora as an offensive assistant coach.
Walk me through the series of events and discussions that led you to take this position at UNC.
It happened in early February after Signing Day. There was going to be an opening. I have a long relationship with Coach (Larry) Fedora. He was an assistant coach when I was a player back at the Air Force Academy. Ever since then I have kept in touch with him and really admired the work he has done over the years. He called me and said, ‘I need a guy to coach the secondary and a guy to recruit the South.’ That is my niche in recruiting.
I’ve had the chance to be around some good head coaches and defensive coordinators from the standpoint of the secondary. What they wanted to do defensively, scheme-wise, was a really good fit. I think he was looking for a guy to come in and be assertive, have some discipline in his background, hold guys accountable. I think the marriage was a good fit.
Tell me about Gene Chizik’s involvement in the process.
It was obviously Coach Chizik’s decision. I just knew Coach Fedora. I had a chance to sit down with Coach Chizik, and he put me on the board. We talked during the interview process. It was one of those things where he wanted a guy who could coach all four (defensive backs), and the nickels and dimes. That’s all I’ve ever done my coaching career—I have never split things up. I think between his scheme and the ability to coach all of them at one time, I think he liked me.
Describe your coaching style for someone who is unfamiliar with you.
A lot of energy—I’m pretty fired up about everything every day. You have to stress the important things; you can’t yell just to yell. There is such a thing as holding guys accountable. Everything I say, everything I do is about a disciplined approach and holding these young men accountable as football players, but you also want to make them better men when they leave here. It’s about the little things: being on time, being a good person. All those things are important to me. [I have a] very disciplined, fiery approach, I’m very demanding—very demanding—very demanding. I want them to be mentally tough. I also want them to know I care about them, I love them, and I want them to be good people.
You touched on this already, but tell me more in-depth how your philosophy meshes with Chizik’s?
Coach Chizik is an aggressive guy. He’s not a guy who is going to sit back and wait. All the coverage schemes that I’ve have been a part of have been a lot of smothering, a lot of putting your hands on people—not a lot of laid back, let it come to me (approach). I think he was also looking for a guy who was fundamental and meticulous in his teaching. A lot of guys can coach, but you have to be able to teach these guys the game of football because they are 18 and they don’t know. They were the best player on their high school team and they ran around. We are trying to teach them concepts and theory, and I think he was looking for that as well as the fire and aggression to make these guys understand we have to play with a swagger. I think that meshed when we got together.
You have been a defensive coordinator yourself. How does that benefit you now in an assistant role to Coach Chizik?
I tell you what, it gives me big-picture perspective. It allows me to coach my guys at a level where I’m not just teaching them what they do; I’m teaching them what the three guys around them are doing as well. Not being a guy who has only done one thing, I’m able to teach the big picture to these players. Coach Chizik is an accomplished DC and an accomplished head coach. He doesn’t need me for a lot, but it’s good to be a guy who gives him ideas in game-planning and reports who has seen it or called a game and been in those situations with ideas about how we are going to defend. We throw ideas around, but at the end of the day he is the man that makes the decision.
The defense has had some record bad years recently. Some of the blame was put on the scheme, at least by the fans. Is it reasonable to expect improvement simply based on the change in the scheme? And what challenges are there in transitioning from the 4-2-5 to the 4-3 defense?
Really, a four-man front is a four-man front. The “5” means five DBs on the field, so schematically people say that, but it’s not that big of a deal. Going from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3, as soon as we go to nickel we are in a 4-2-5. It is more about what you believe in and what you stress. We are going to get good at what we stress. We are going to be good, not at 100 things, but we are going to be really freakin’ good at 10-12 things. I think it is just the importance that you put on things.
It seems that one of the concepts is to simplify things. How much does the level of execution elevate through simplification?
We always talk in our meeting rooms—we had this military guy come in and we talk about the ‘oodle-oop.’ We have got to be able to slow things down so guys can process. You cannot process 15-20 things at one time. If I tell you to do one thing you will do it really, really well. If I tell you to do two things, you will do it OK. If I tell you to do three things you probably will bust, so we can’t give them a lot. We have to make it so they can process it and react quickly. As soon as you are thinking during a play, the other guy is running by you. You have to see it, react, process, get oriented, and go and do what we do. We have to slow things down for them. When we say ‘simple,’ it’s about being disciplined in what you do and understanding fully what you and the guys around you do.
You went to the Air Force Academy, so you must be a sharp guy. I see you majored in “human factors engineering.” Tell me about that.
It’s basically just ergonomics… It’s about re-design—for example, if you look at a cockpit you may change from all the old dials to an all-glass cockpit with touch screens. At the Air Force Academy it falls under behavioral science. You go in, if you see something broken or inefficient, you go in and make it efficient. It sounds like coaching.
How much of the full defensive package have you installed?
We are pretty much winding down camp mode, so we have all the conceptual things and situational things we want to put in. Now we are just sort of fine-tuning, taking days and focusing on certain aspects of the playbook. From the standpoint of mass install, we are done with that pretty much.
At what point do you start game-planning for South Carolina?
Normally, in these situations the time frame is about 10 days out to take advantage of a few extra days. We will look at the 10-day mark, 11-day mark and start doing that. Obviously, we have already looked at them at some points and started exposing our guys, conceptually, to some things. We have looked at them throughout the summer, so we have an idea of what we want to do. From a player standpoint and focus standpoint it will be 11 days out.
You said Chizik likes to be aggressive and have hands on people. That’s not something they did as much of last season. How are they picking up that concept, and are they embracing it?
I don’t really know what they did last year, but from the spring when we started repping that was the motto and the standard from the start. They have had to embrace that, and they have done a good job of changing technique, changing their fundamentals, and really their attitude when it comes to covering routes and receivers. They have really adapted to it, and I think some guys have made great strides from spring to now. It really shows in their technique.
How much route-reading are they doing and how much spot-dropping?
It depends on the coverage concept. Some will be playing your guy, and some will be playing the quarterback and zone vision.
You haven’t yet named any starters, but Fedora called Sam Smiley ‘the old guy’ and said that everyone looks up to him. He will probably play some role. What does his experience and leadership mean leading into the season?
He is a guy who has been around a long, long time. He has been in the fire, he has been around these guys in battle, he’s been through some injuries in the past. I think he just brings that old man wisdom every day in practice. He’s a guy that really busts (his rear end). He has the mental knowledge of the package, so I think other guys look to him from that standpoint.. We have some younger guys.
Even though Sam maybe has never been a fulltime 12-, 13-game starter, he has seen live bullets and been involved. He’s one of the guys that, coming out of spring, I thought mastered the playbook at that level and had really good command of all the calls in the secondary, getting guys lined up, making pressure checks. I thought he has done a good job. And that is why the guys gravitate to him.
You have mentioned players holding each other accountable for learning the system and making sure the little mistakes are accounted for. Is he one of the guys who holds others accountable and keeps the team in check?
Oh yeah, he expects them to do their job, and that is really what being accountable is—everybody expecting you to do your job. He can do it because he knows everybody’s job. When a route gets dropped or a coverage gets busted he can point right to the guy and say, ‘You’ve got to take that burden because of X, Y, and Z.’ I think his knowing everybody’s job allows him to make everyone accountable for his job when it happens.
You mentioned the adversity he has overcome due to injuries. Do you think that has helped him to appreciate the game more, the way he goes about it every day?
I think that, injury or no injury, he really respects the game. I think he is a guy that really wants to play, he’s hungry to play, and everything he’s done since I’ve been here shows me he’s ready to do that.
How much do you expect him to play this year—one of the full rotation guys?
We’ll see. We haven’t named starters so the guys that win the jobs are the guys that are going to play. We are not going to rotate just because it is someone else’s turn. The guys that have earned the playing time are guys that can play. Whether that is four or five guys or whether that is 10 guys, the best guys that know what to do are the only ones that are going to play. I hope it’s 10, I hope it’s three deep. If we have to roll with five we will roll with five, if we have to roll with four we will roll with four.
You said Smiley is mentally srong. Have you been impressed physically with what he has done on the field?
Yeah, in scrimmages you look at him, several times this season what has impressed me is for him to come down in man coverage and make a play on (Ryan) Switzer in open space, and he has gotten him down every time. That is sort of the barometer—if you can tackle a guy like that in space with no help you feel good about your ability to tackle guys in space. Running backs coming down hill, he’s a physical guy, he’s going to put his pads on you, but his foot quickness is good enough to get tricky guys like Switzer down in space. I have been pleased with his open field tackling.
Who are the young guys who have impressed you?
M.J. Stewart, being a sophomore, has had a really strong camp. I think Mike Hughes has come in here and really competed well. We get them lined up, we get them focused on the play calls, but just from a competitive standpoint, energy, athleticism, he is showing me a lot of great things. I think a lot of these guys haven’t started or played a lot, but by the same token guys like [Brian Walker] and (Des) Lawrence, who are returning juniors, they are still sort of young, especially young in our package. Those guys have had really good camps. I think of the young guys, guys like a Mike Hughes and an M.J. Stewart have really stood out.