CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defense established a performance baseline in last Thursday’s loss to South Carolina that must now be eclipsed in each practice and each game that follows, according to defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
“I told them I’m excited about the direction it’s headed provided that we’re still ascending,” Chizik said. “We need to ascend every week.”
Chizik, who spoke to the media on Wednesday for the first time since the 17-13 loss, offered cautious praise of his defense’s performance against the Gamecocks in its first game under his direction. The two-time national champion made sure his comments were taken in a relative manner, bookending a compliment with a reminder that more would be expected later in the season.
For example, the defensive buzz word throughout training camp was physicality. Chizik offered this critique when asked about his team’s effort in that regard: “It’s not where we wanted it, but it’s certainly an improvement. It’s certainly an improvement. For me to say there wasn’t, that would not be true. So I think at the point of attack, we’re heading in the right direction in terms of physicality.”
Chizik told reporters that his defensive line made “baby steps” in its first game, noting that while the effort was good, there was plenty of polishing to be done. One particular area needing improvement is the transitional pass rush, which is rushing the passer when you initially expect a run play.
“We’ve got to get four-man pressure,” Chizik said. “We can’t expect to always blitz somebody to try to get pressure.”
Rushing the passer on obvious passing downs is a simple task for most defensive linemen. When focused on stopping the run, however, the defensive line is actively engaging the offensive line, so an unexpected pass play in that setting forces the defensive linemen to use their techniques to get by their counterparts and after the quarterback, according to sophomore defensive tackle Nazair Jones.
“I think it was average,” Jones said of the line’s play. “It was solid; we didn’t do great. If we would have played great, we would have won the game. That speaks for itself and just the stats, especially the catastrophic run they had. That was a backbreaker for us… We’re just scratching the surface of how good we can be.”
There was significant praise for the secondary’s play by both Chizik and head coach Larry Fedora.
“I feel like our secondary as a whole really played well,” Chizik said. “I felt like most of the time we were in position to smother receivers. They didn’t play perfect, but first game, I felt like we were in the right positions. And all of their play-action passes or any passes that were a little bit tricky, we were not fooled on any of them. I felt like the discipline and their eye discipline was really, really good.”
South Carolina quarterback Connor Mitch completed 9-of-22 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Backup Perry Orth connected on both of his attempts for 24 yards.
“I would say that it was Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart that played really, really good games,” Fedora said. “We felt like our secondary did a nice job of being where they were supposed to be in the passing game and forcing them to become one-dimensional.”
Fedora also credited middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer for playing “extremely well.”
The Tar Heels missed 12 tackles in the season opener, three of which led to explosive plays.
“I thought our defense tackled much better,” Fedora said. “A lot of it was because guys were in the right position to be able to make those tackles and then it was proper tracking. They were tracking the ball. You have guys running to the football and taking the proper angles to be able to make the play.”
Chizik described Shon Carson’s 48-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run as being due to a combination of defenders not getting off their blocks and others being too slow in responding to the play.
His emphasis on not falling behind Thursday’s benchmark was on display following Tuesday’s practice, as the Tar Heel defense spent a significant amount of time doing up-downs for punishment for a lack of focus. Chizik stressed such breakdowns in practice will not be tolerated, adding that not practicing to the standard of a championship defense is not an option.
The “practice habits of winners” are not ingrained yet, but there has been progress.
“They can do it right and do it light, or do it wrong and do it long,” Chizik said. “Whatever they want to do. It’s their choice.”