CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- At 38 years old, John Papuchis is still a young man to be in the position of defensive coordinator at a Power Five program.
He’s not as young as he was when he was promoted to defensive coordinator at the age of 31 at Nebraska – when he was the youngest DC in college football. Despite his age, he’s served alongside some of the most well known defensive coaches in the nation.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked for great defensive coaches like Nick Saban (at LSU), Bill Young (Kansas), Bo Pelini (LSU and Nebraska), and Gene Chizik,” Papuchis said. “And I learned a lot from each of them.”
Some of Papcuchis’s mentors, like Pelini, often employed a two-gap defensive front, which required defensive linemen to play off the line and be prepared to fill a gap in the offensive line on either side of their alignment. Gene Chizik preferred a one-gap alignment and strategy, where the front seven of the defense were responsible for that single gap.
Even though two of the new members of the UNC defensive staff, Terry Joseph and Mike Ekeler, also worked in Pelini’s style, Papuchis intends to stick with the one-gap system used the past two seasons by Chizik.
“Some of that depends on your personnel, some of it depends on preference, but for our guys we wanted to maintain continuity and not ask them to learn a different system,” Papuchis said. “We’ll still have the one-gap system.”
Though that is the plan, Papuchis recognized that necessity, even during a season, could call for changes.
“Every defense that I’ve been with has needed to evolve during a season,” Papuchis said. “Depending on your opponent, or the discovery that you can do something different and get better results, or other factors, can require you to tweak and modify what you’re doing during a season.”
One question among the UNC football faithful is the level of aggressiveness of the defense, and how depth, or the lack thereof, can impact that level.
“Some people define aggressiveness based on how often they see you blitz,” Papuchis said. “You can be aggressive on defense without incorporating a lot of blitzes. Depth can play into aggressiveness, but there are so many contributing factors involved that aggressiveness doesn’t just come down to depth.”
The coaches Papuchis worked with each had a defensive style that made an impression on Papuchis, and he’s incorporated those styles into what he sees as his “core beliefs” about defense. He’ll have more of an opportunity to define his own style at North Carolina.
While at Nebraska, Papuchis’s head coach was Pelini, a former defensive coach and coordinator who undoubtedly had a voice in the defensive room for the Cornhuskers. Now he’ll be working for Larry Fedora, who rose through the ranks as an offensive coach and coordinator. Fedora has a reputation of being “hands off” on the defensive side of the ball.
In some ways, 2017 may mark the beginning of a style and approach to defense, though influenced by some of the best defensive coaches in the game, unique to Papuchis.
Stay tuned for more of Inside Carolina’s pre-spring interview series with the Tar Heel coordinators.