CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After 10 days of schematic install and recall, Larry Fedora’s coaching staff tested its roster during Monday’s scrimmage with situational football in the unrelenting August heat.
While the heat index provided the physical challenges at Kenan Stadium, it was a variety of in-game scenarios intent on replicating live action that served to task the players’ mental wherewithal.
“We talk a lot in our defensive meetings about playing situational football, being smart football players,” sophomore middle linebacker Andre Smith told reporters after the scrimmage. “It’s not just going out there and doing it…. Gene Chizik is going to make all the calls, but it’s going out there and trying to think like him. Learn football, have a high football IQ, and think about the situations you're in. If we’re in third down, the red zone, end of game, or overtime, we have to know what the offense is trying to run.”
While the situational aspect of a scrimmage can simulate live game experiences, it can also expose weaknesses. For UNC’s defense, it was the fast-paced play of the offense that led to several mistakes throughout practice.
“Sometimes with our quick tempo offense, you might get in that panic and lose your composure,” Smith said. “You might not see the call all the way. You might not hear someone trying to communicate to you. So it’s stuff like that and simply just not doing your job.”
That fast-paced tempo complemented UNC’s explosive offense during the team’s second scrimmage of camp, as evidenced by Mitch Trubisky’s 99-yard touchdown pass play to Mack Hollins.
“There were times when the offense was moving really fast, especially in two minutes,” Smith said. “Offense moves fast, they got a big play downfield and you’ve got to get together, get everyone back lined up, get them back together, get them refocused about playing the next down and forgetting the big play.”
While the big plays let up by the Tar Heels’ defense may be a cause for concern, senior cornerback Des Lawrence stressed that those type of mistakes are just a product of a team playing situational football where the offense is trying to be just as great as the defense.
“I think the effort was in the right place, but we just didn’t capitalize on key downs and key situations,” Lawrence said. “Sometimes (the offense) is going to make plays; they’re on scholarship, too. Certain downs when they’re backed up and we give them a chunk of yardage, we can’t continue to do that in order for us to be a great defense. We know that we can be a top-5, top-10 defense if we’re clicking and rolling and that starts by not making mistakes.”
The scrimmage also provided the opportunity for some freshmen, such as defensive back K.J. Sails and linebacker Dominique Ross, to get their first taste of situational football in a Tar Heel uniform. Underclassmen were integrated with the veterans on defense and tasked with figuring out how to keep up with the offense, remembering Chizik’s playbook, and handling the blazing hot temperatures all at once.
“We’ve been mix-and-matching some guys that had experience and some guys that didn’t,” junior safety Donnie Miles said. “There’s freshmen out there and their brains are spinning, there’s going to be things like that.”
Smith viewed the scrimmage as a chance to weed out the younger players who weren’t ready for the pressure that this type of practice presents.
“You don’t want to have a player out there who’s not football smart, who’s not thinking about situations,” Smith said. “Situations are really important because if they drive 80 yards and get in the red zone, a field goal is better than a touchdown. Those eighty yards are important, don’t get me wrong, but if you get to the last 20 yards and they don’t score then that’s it.”
Neither are lengthy drives detrimental if there is a turnover at the end, which is an area the defense had success throughout the scrimmage. “We were able to turn the offense over,” Lawrence said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about lately. We have more turnovers in us than we got last year, so we’ve just been trying to attack the ball and get the ball out.”
The other positive development for the defense was its willingness to outwork its offensive counterpart. Lawrence highlighted his teammates’ efforts in making plays across the field to save several touchdowns.
“Every day is a day closer for us to get better and get prepared,” Miles said. “It’s going to be fun, but right now you can’t worry about Sept. 3. You’ve got to worry about the process, and the process is training camp.”
Greg Barnes contributed to this story.