CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Gene Chizik must replace several significant stalwarts in his starting defense and will use the coming month of spring practice to begin to determine who is ready to fill those shoes.
You get Aaron Crawford back on the defensive line, what do you expect from him this spring?
I am really excited about him, I really am. I think he’s got a lot to offer. Obviously we have him for four years, I think his upside is huge. He’s an extremely explosive and powerful guy, he’s compact, he’s low to the ground, he’s got the suddenness and burst that you kind of need down there to establish a new line of scrimmage, if you will, but he’s got so much to learn.
But a healthy Aaron Crawford is what I am smiling about. I don’t think he’s 100 percent, but I think he’s getting there, and it will work in that direction. When he does get to 100 percent, and he learns the game down there, and obviously learns what we’re doing, I think he’s got a chance to be a really effective player in this league for sure.
How do you feel about the pressure UNC was able to put on quarterbacks last season?
Mikey Bart was our sack leader. Mikey is one of those old blue collar guys that’s just going to work, is going to be in the right spots, and the right times - he’s always available. What I mean by that is in practice, even when he’s hurt, when he’s banged up, even when there are physical issues, you can’t get him out of practice, and you see that transfer to the field.
We feel like we have to collectively rush better as a front four. We feel like we will. The thing that everybody looks at is sacks, but that doesn’t always necessarily tell the tale.
As we’ve gone back and reviewed this in the last five, six weeks, what we’re finding is that we did affect the quarterback some. That’s why we had a lot of interceptions. That’s why we had a lot of really great pass defense, because we were affecting the quarterback. We weren’t necessarily sacking him, but we could make him move in a direction and make him throw off rhythm, which quarterbacks don’t want to do.
So we were affecting the quarterback with pressures and knockdowns, and that was happening. Did we get as many sacks as we wanted? No. We didn’t with a four-man rush and we definitely need to improve that and I think we will.
We definitely have to get that unbelievable edge-rusher that makes everybody worry at night, but that’s still out there - we don’t necessarily have that yet, but we’ve got to find that. We, quite frankly, forget about four-man pressure, but schematically we’ve got to improve on getting to the quarterback other ways, with different pressures and things. In the spring, that will be a huge emphasis for sure.
You have big shoes to fill at linebacker with the graduation of Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer – what does the early spring depth chart look like there?
Right now, we’re going to start out with the guys who have been here. That’s where we start. You’ve got Cole Holcomb as an outside linebacker, you’ve got Hunter Crafford, Cayson Collins, you’ve got Ayden Bonilla, guys that have been here before. At the middle linebacker spot, Andre Smith and Dan Mastrometteo, Johnathon Sutton.
Then you’ve got your new guys in the mix. Allen Artis has been moved to a linebacker position, which I think is going to be an effective move, he’s a bigger safety, and we think he can bring value down there to that position, so we’ve got to see what he can do.
Then we’ve got to see what our new guys can do: J.B. Copeland, who’s here, Jonathan Smith, who’s here, so this spring is going to be really telling in terms of those guys coming on, and understanding the defense, and how productive they can be based on how fast they learn it, because we lost two critical pieces to the puzzle when we lost Shakeel Rashad and lost Jeff Schoettmer.
With all those guys in the mix, do you see a lot of experimenting with the linebacker depth chart this spring?
I don’t know that I really have an expectation one way or the other. One of the reasons the linebacker scenario unfolded the way it did (last year) was because we really weren’t sure who was going to go where, and it just happened that our best players at linebacker were those two. And Shakeel Rashad was sort of a project because he was switching from a hybrid role, we weren’t sure what we were getting. But both of those players really understood the game, they understood football, and they had experience and there is no substitute for that. So they ended up starting in that role and finishing in that role, because they were football guys who understood the game and they had some experience under their belt.
This year is not quite the same, because the experience level with these guys at these positions is not there, it’s just not there. If we get some guys that we start out with, and they learn it, and they are productive, and things of that nature, then it will stay the same, but I don’t know how that will unfold, because they are all so new. But if you back up and look at it, they do have an advantage over this time last year, because they’ve all heard it for a year. So in terms of experience on the field in games, no, not a lot. If you talk about experience in terms of they’ve heard it over and over and over again, and went through 14 weeks of game plans, they should be light years ahead of where we were last year on day one with everybody.
That’s where it is going to get interesting, to see who has absorbed all of that, can play the fastest, and be the most productive, because this isn’t the first time they are hearing it now.
Who do you see the at the corner spots this spring? Will younger guys play early?
I see M.J. Stewart at nickel. I feel like there are some young guys that are going to have to play, Corey Bell is going to have to come on at corner. I feel like Des (Lawrence) will always be really solid; my expectation of him is that he will have a great senior year. At that position, that corner position, we’re going to have to have some help from some younger guys. Myles Wolfork came in, he’s going to have to be in the mix to see what he can do, then we have some guys who are going to be coming in during the summer. So somebody new is going to be playing back there, for sure, probably multiple people.
How set are you at the safety spots?
I was very proud of what Dominique Green did last year, very proud. That doesn’t mean he’ll wind up being the starter, but we certainly anticipate he’s going to battle for that position. You’ve got Donnie Miles, you’ve got Dom Green, you’ve got J.K. Britt - those are three guys that have been here.
And then you have Myles Dorn, who we hope can battle for a position. We are really counting on Myles Dorn to help shore up the safety position. Then you’ve got D.J. Ford coming in, again, who we hope will battle for a position. At that spot, it could be a good mixture of some older and some younger, but don’t be surprised if you see some new guys there that end up playing.