CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – This is not the first time that Gene Chizik has been tasked with rebuilding a defense.
After his initial success as a defensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin in the late 1990s, Chizik moved into the nation’s elite of defensive coordinators by turning a porous Central Florida defense into a top-20 unit nationally in total defense. Only then did he make good defenses even better at Auburn and Texas before ascending into head coaching roles at Iowa State and Auburn.
His process is methodical, emphasizing understanding more than personnel packages. If a player fails to comprehend one detail, everything grinds to a halt for an explanation. The intent is for a manageable learning curve by installing the base defense time and time again. Chizik utilized three different installation periods in 2015, beginning with spring ball and ending with training camp, and is roughly 80 percent done with his second installation of 2016.
After a purely base scheme last season, Chizik will expand upon that strategy with situational personnel packages beginning after Wednesday’s first scrimmage of training camp, yet the process remains one of steady development.
Chizik’s willing to be patient with the schematics portion of his approach. Where his patience wanes lies in the intangibles of the game. Effort. Dedication. Accountability. As fatherly and accommodating as he may have been during installation last August, he was unequivocally as demanding in practicing at a championship level, which the Tar Heels consistently failed to do.
The defense is not there yet, but its making the necessary strides.
“It’s really kind of night and day, to be honest with you,” Chizik told reporters on Tuesday. “The expectations that we have now, a year later, if you go back 365 days, we would have to always keep grinding on the expectations, keep grinding on what it’s supposed to look like and how you’re supposed to execute. So now, they’re very conscientious. They know when it’s not right. They know when it doesn’t look good. They know when it doesn’t feel right, and they know when the expectation is not being met. We don’t have to say a lot.”
It’s a topic Chizik seemingly emphasizes at every opportunity, whether it be in the meeting room or at Navy Fields, according to several Tar Heels. Until that level of excellence is met in practice, it will not be met in games.
“It’s something that we’re continuing to work on and continuing to demand from each other every day,” junior linebacker Cayson Collins said. “Last year we might have been okay with breaking down hill and disrupting a pass, but this year we expect to get turnovers. We’ve continued throughout spring ball and camp to raise the bar for ourselves because we want to be one of the best defenses in the country. So for us to do that, we have to practice like that every day.”
Chizik holds accountability meetings with his entire roster, which offers a setting for him to reiterate the pillars of his defense. It’s also a time to highlight practice plays he believes will win games and championships, as well as plays in which players are not living up to those benchmarks.
“He talks a lot about what our standard is for defense and what our standard is for Carolina football,” Collins said. “So when guys come out to practice and there’s one or two plays where somebody’s not running to the ball, he will call that person out in front of everybody and hold that person accountable.”
The byproduct is a roster of players willing to address such issues long before they walk into the accountability meetings. The onus of correction is slowly shifting from the coaches to the players. There’s unity in that approach, which can then transition into game situations.
“Defensive football is a puzzle,” Chizik said. “There’s 11 pieces to it, and not every single person on every single play is going to be right on every single inch of his turf. But as long as you have guys as a group that understand where they’re supposed to be and how they’re supposed to fit, they can communicate and play with a lot of effort and intensity.
“And that’s how you play great defense. Great defense is not rocket science. It’s everybody doing their job.”