CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defensive line has struggled to establish a consistent pass rush thus far in 2015. That issue will need to be corrected this weekend against Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt and the Fighting Illini’s pass-heavy offense.
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik harped on the need for a better transitional pass rush – rushing the passer after initially playing the run – following UNC’s season-opening loss to South Carolina.
Those concerns carried over into Week 2’s win over FCS foe N.C. A&T. UNC has just two sacks and nine quarterback hurries through two games. Redshirt freshman tackle Robert Dinkins and junior end Mikey Bart have both notched a sack, while sophomore end Dajaun Drennon leads the team with two quarterback hurries.
“We did okay, but we’re still not there,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said on Monday. “We’re still expecting more pass rush out of those guys up front, especially in those situations. They’ve got to be able to transition a lot quicker and get into that pass rush mode. But when they know we’re going, there’s got to be more sense of urgency, also.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Nazair Jones said that while the defensive line did its job against N.C. A&T, nobody stood out.
“We were all really disappointed in how we played because nobody got the numbers we wanted to get,” Jones said, “but we did our job in stopping the run and keeping them to a low score.”
Chizik’s defensive approach relies on the ability to stop the run, so that’s the focal point on most every play for his defensive line. Last week he said it’s easy to rush the quarterback on obvious passing downs, but that’s not the case when having to adjust after the snap.
“On the inside, you’ve got to play the run every play,” Jones said. “So you’re never going to get just a full speed pass rush, unless it’s 3rd-and-forever.”
Chizik stressed improvement in the transition pass rush phase during Sunday’s correction period.
“We put so much emphasis on stopping the run, when they do decide to pass the ball, we have to be able to get off the blocks and pressure the passer,” Jones said. “That’s going to be a big emphasis this week because we haven’t proven that we can put pressure on any quarterback from any conference.”
The key to proper transition from run technique, such as the bull pull and bull rip, to pass rush is finding an edge to slice through the line instead of trying to go through an offensive lineman, according to Jones.
He added that there is a level of concern with regard to pass rushing in general due to the line’s inability to get pressure on either of UNC’s first two opponents.
“Not being able to get pressure on the A&T quarterback was a big deal for us,” Jones said. “If we can’t prove it against them, that means we’ve really got to step our game up.”
Neither South Carolina nor N.C. A&T relies on its passing game the way that Illinois does. Interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s unit ranked second in the Big Ten and 49th nationally in passing offense (249.8 ypg) in 2014, and that’s with Lunt sidelined for five games due to injury.
Illinois currently ranks third in the Big Ten and 38th nationally in passing offense (280.5) after two wins in 2015. Lunt has completed 44-of-65 passes for 478 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. The Illini's junior quarterback has yet to be sacked this season.