CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Gene Chizik’s lack of familiarity with Paul Johnson’s offense spotted Georgia Tech a 21-point lead last season in Atlanta. With a comfort level now in place, UNC is better prepared to handle the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense.
UNC did not practice against cut blocking much last fall, and that approach was evident on game day, according to Chizik. Consider it a lesson learned. UNC’s coaching staff educated its offensive scout team on how to cut block effectively by showing plenty of film cutups, and then spent the bye week and the first two practices this week cutting effectively.
“There’s no way you can simulate doing it any other way but doing it,” Chizik said. “So we really don’t have a choice. But the guys have handled it well.”
Cut blocks are one component of an overall game plan that was lacking in last year’s 38-31 UNC win. The Tar Heels made enough defensive adjustments at halftime to persevere, although the final product was not to Chizik’s liking.
“We did a lot of things not well,” Chizik said with a grin after Tuesday’s practice.
With game tape in hand and a full offseason to digest Johnson’s offense, UNC is ready for a second chance at slowing Justin Thomas and the Yellow Jackets.
“There’s not as much of a guessing game because you can actually look at what you did last year and then look at what they did in response to it,” Chizik said. “We didn’t really have that last year. We just had our best educated guess.”
The intricacies of the Georgia Tech are based on deception – or as Chizik calls its, “eye candy” – which tempts defensive players into looking in certain spots when their focus should be elsewhere. One missed assignment can lead to a catastrophic play. Look no further than last week’s win over Duke, in which the Yellow Jackets amassed 324 yards on just six plays.
“We’ve really spent a lot time on making sure that my eyes are in the right place doing my job,” Chizik said.
There’s further evidence of UNC’s heightened confidence level. Linebackers coach John Papuchis joined Chizik in the press box last season to get a better feel for Johnson’s blocking schemes, but he will be back on the sideline on Saturday. Instead, Chizik will deploy five or six different staff members to silo certain blocking designs and report back to his command center overhead.
“That’s another advantage for us playing them for a second time,” Chizik said.
Another aspect that benefits UNC is its more mature defensive scheme. The days of pure base are long gone.
“Last year we only had a couple of plays, but now we’ve got a lot of different ways to attack it,” junior defensive tackle Naz Jones said.
The basics, however, remain the same. The defensive tackles are responsible for manning the A gaps and stop the triple-option’s first option, the dive. The cornerbacks assume more of a vision role, setting the edge, staying upright and rallying to the ball in case of a breakdown. The safeties, linebackers and defensive ends have their own responsibilities, whether it be taking the quarterback or the pitch, or watching for backside options or downfield passes.
With Chizik’s emphasis on discipline and gap integrity, don’t expect to see much defensive line penetration, which is an aggressive approach that can increase the likelihood of explosive plays.
“it’s give or take, because when you get those guys penetrating, they can make one cut and then everybody’s out of gap and then you’ve got a catastrophic play,” Jones said. “You’re taking a chance when you’re getting guys doing that. I know in our scheme, a lot of times we’re just playing our gaps and tackling whatever comes to us.”
Defensive back K.J. Sails and wide receiver Devin Perry have served the role of Georgia Tech quarterback in practice this week, providing a blend of speed and quickness to test the Tar Heel defense.
Chizik is well aware his scout team can only simulate Johnson’s offense to a certain extent. Everything else, though, has been checked off and accounted for.