Rock Solid Wall

UNC's defensive line is relying on scheme and aggression to overcome its 2014 struggles.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For the better part of eight months, long after sweeping away the rubble of the 2014 season, North Carolina’s defensive line has spent its time constructing a foundation based on physicality, simplicity and a one-gap scheme.

“It’s building a rock solid wall,” junior defensive end Mikey Bart said. “That’s what we call it. Everybody’s doing their job, all of the gaps are closed and literally it’s like a wall. No one’s going to run on us.”

That’s a confident, if not cocky, claim for a defensive line that served as the front door of arguably the worst defense in school history. However, that bold statement speaks to the buy-in this group possesses in defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s new philosophy and scheme.

While various Tar Heels have praised the new defensive approach as being far simpler than Vic Koenning’s intricate 4-2-5 design, the coaches don’t quite see it the same way.

“I don’t know that it’s simpler,” defensive line coach Tray Scott said. “We’re being a lot more physical, and actually, the way we play sometimes we have them take care of a primary gap and a secondary gap from a one-gap alignment. We’re asking the guys really to focus more on their technique. Not running around blocks, actually playing the blocks, attacking angles of departure of the offensive line.”

One area Scott needs to see improvement is in his line’s ability to track the football. Part of that likely results from the change in scheme.

In 2014, Bart played the bandit position, a hybrid linebacker-end role, and was tasked at random times to either set the edge, cover in space or rush the passer. In Chizik’s 4-3, the linemen are instructed to explode into their gap and tackle the offensive player holding the ball, whether it’s the quarterback or a running back. In general terms, there are no designations such as a run stopper or pass rusher along the defensive line.

Scott recently told reporters that he had a “good seven or eight guys” along the defensive line he felt comfortable playing in games at this point. The two linemen that have impressed Scott the most during training camp both reside at the nose tackle position: redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke and sophomore Tyler Powell.

Clarke is currently working with the ones alongside sophomore Nazair Jones, who is manning the defensive tackle position (formerly known as the rush tackle or three-technique). Backing up Jones is redshirt freshman Robert Dinkins and senior Justin Thomason.

Jones emerged as the likely starter after embracing the new mindset his position requires.

“Being physical in whatever I do,” Jones said. “I can be going one way or another way, but whatever I do, even if I mess up, I’ve got to do it physical. That’s never been a part of my game, but it has to be in this scheme.”

While the defensive tackle spots are seemingly locked down, the competition at defensive end is ongoing. Junior Junior Gnonkonde and sophomore Dajaun Drennon are entrenched at the quick end spot along with freshman Malik Carney. Bart and senior Jessie Rogers are neck-and-neck at power end.

“I see great competition there,” Chizik said. “I think guys are still fighting and battling for jobs. At that position, we’re not set on anybody yet.”

Bart opened camp with the second unit, but moved up to the ones after the first scrimmage on Aug. 9.

“[Bart’s] an absolute warrior,” Scott said. “A try-hard guy. Brings the correct attitude and effort every single day. His technique has gotten better. With Mikey, I have to tell him to slow down sometimes. He’ll tell you, he’s only got one speed.”

Gnonkonde has worked with the first unit since spring ball.

“He’s done a great job of working on his technique and doing exactly what we need him to do at that position, giving us a pass-rush jolt and then also being physical at the point of attack versus run,” Scott said of Gnonkonde.

There will be plenty of youth along UNC’s defensive line in 2015 without much production on its resume. The Tar Heels’ returners up front accounted for 31 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 991 plays last season.

A simpler scheme and a more physical approach should dramatically improve those statistics, according to the players.

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