CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- John Papuchis is serving in his first year as the UNC Tar Heels linebackers coach after a stint as a Nebraska Cornhusker from 2008-2014, the final three as the defensive coordinator. Prior to Nebraska, he worked under Nick Saban at Louisiana State University 2004-07 and was a graduate assistant at Kansas 2001-03. Papuchis graduated from Virginia Tech in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in business management. He earned his master’s degree in sports administration from Kansas in 2003.
Walk me through the series of events and discussions that led you to be in the position you are right now.
Shortly after Coach (Gene) Chizik got hired here we had some contact—he reached out about a possible interest in coming here. At the time there were a couple options I was wading through. After talking to him, and knowing Coach (Larry) Fedora and what he’s all about as a man and a football coach, it became pretty obvious that this was a great opportunity for me and my family.
So he reached out to you?
What were your initial thoughts about working for Coach Chizik at UNC?
I was really, really excited. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for him from the times I was at LSU and he was at Auburn. I’ve followed his career from Texas to Iowa State, back to Auburn. I think he is a tremendous football coach, a tremendous defensive mind. For me, having an opportunity to work for someone like that, to continue to grown in this profession, it was a no-brainer
How would you describe your coaching style to someone who is not familiar with you?
I like to think of myself as a teacher; I just happen to teach football. I’m no different from anybody else who teaches. On the field I expect our guys to compete, get after it, and be physical and tough. That’s what is different than in the classroom, but my job, ultimately, is to help these guys become the best players and the best men they can be—in every facet of life.
How does your philosophy, on the field and off, mesh with Coach Chizik’s?
I think extremely well. Our objective every single day is to find a way to get better—as an individual, in the classroom, in the way guys interact away from the facility, and better on the football field. I think all those things are tied together. We are trying to develop the whole person, the whole player, and that is the philosophy and the school of thought I came up in coaching, and it is the same one Coach Chizik has.
All the guys you are coaching now have been in the 4-2-5 defense their whole career. What obstacles are you encountering or what challenges are there in transitioning to the more conventional 4-3?
No matter what scheme we used, it was going to be new, so regardless of moving from the 4-2-5 to the 4-3, they were going to have to learn new terminology and a new system. So it hasn’t been a very difficult transition because our guys are eager to learn, they have worked hard in the meeting room, and they have worked hard in the off-season.
Recently, the defense has had some record bad seasons. Is there reason to expect improvement simply based on a change in scheme?
It won’t be just based on scheme change; what it will be based on is a change in mind set. Regardless of scheme, the fundamentals of being good on defense still come down to running to the football and tackling. It’s still about that regardless of what scheme you are running, so if we run to the football and we tackle—if we improve in those two areas, we are going to be better as a defense, overall.
Who of the young guys in your group have stood out in your position group?
I would say clearly Andre Smith when you look at the young guys. He had a great spring and a really good fall. Right now he is our second Mike (linebacker). I think he has done a nice job.
Who is the leader in your position group?
The coaching staff always spoke highly of Jeff (Schoettmer), and it didn’t take me long to see why. He was THE leader. You could tell he was kind of the top dog in the room. They other players, they fall in line and follow him. That’s because he has deserved it. Coach Fedora talks about—he has taken over 2,000 reps as a ‘backer in game situations. That’s hard to do in a college career. Not only has he done it on the field, but his work ethic and his attention to detail off the field in the meeting room has made him a leader on this football team.
How have you seen Shakeel Rashad act in that leadership role since you have been here?
Shak is one of those guys who does everything right. He does everything you ask him to do. He doesn’t always have a vocal role in terms of leadership, but that’s not necessarily his role in the room. He is a veteran that models the behavior that I want other guys to follow. I can’t say enough good things about him and the way he approaches every day.
How much have the calls changed for Schoettmer with the difference in scheme?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because I don’t know what his responsibilities were a year ago, but he controls our front and he controls everything we do. He’s the quarterback of our defense, and we put a lot on his shoulders.
How much do the responsibilities of the linebackers change in the 4-3 versus the 4-2-5?
Again, that’s a little difficult for me to answer because I don’t know what their responsibilities were, but in our system we are a personnel-matched 4-3 so we’ll be in nickel, which creates that 4-2-5. I know what’s probably different for them is their run fits.. Our approach to coverage is a little different than what they did a year ago. So for everything it’s a new deal, but I don’t know that it’s that big of transition—it’s just new.
One key to good defense is pressure on the offense. In what way will we see that from the linebacker?
I think you are going to see a balance. We have a pretty good pressure package; I like how it fits in our system. There are always reasons why you pressure, and when we look at our opponents there will be a time and place for pressure and times for us to play base defense. That will be dictated by the game situation and how our execution is going at the time.
How much of everything have you installed, and are you where you want to be?
I think we are where we want to be. We have exposed them to a lot, but we haven’t overdone it in terms of volume of installation. They have gotten a lot of different concepts but not to the point where we feel like it’s going to slow them down mentally.
You touched on simplification on defense. Where do you strike the balance between simplification for the players and complexity for opposing offenses?
Give them what they can handle. I think our players dictate how much we do and how fast we do it because it is obvious every day when you watch the practice film what it is that they have a good firm grasp on and what it is that they don’t. So they dictate the tempo in terms of installation and what you bring into a game.
From your point of view, how are they picking things up and executing based on what you expect for live game action?
Generally, we have a pretty smart group. I have been pleased with their ability to understand and execute. Now, that’s not to say we don’t make our fair share of mistakes, but I think big picture-wise they have done a pretty good job of handling the installation.
A recurring theme from last year was “missed assignments.” What are you seeing in that regard, and what can you do to maximize efficiency?
Well, there are a lot of things that can lead to missed assignments. One of them is obviously overall understanding. Two, there is communication on the field. Two things we have emphasized is that we have to be able to execute what is called for us to be successful—and again, I’m not real familiar with things from a year ago but this group so far has been one that I think has taken what they learned in practice and have been able to make corrections going into the next day. [On game day] hopefully our execution is at the point it will give us a chance to be successful.