CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- “We’ve got to get better at stopping the run,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. Sound familiar? When discussing the 2017 North Carolina defense, Papuchis led with that observation. For obvious reasons.
The Tar Heel football team made substantial progress after Gene Chizik arrived as defensive coordinator in 2015 in many categories. The piece of defensive success that has been elusive is stopping the run. In 2014 the Tar Heels ranked 120th nationally in run defense. They were 122nd the following year, and 109th last year.
“There have been a lot of contributing factors,” Papuchis said. “One is the give-and-take nature of defense. When we got here, the defense was 121st nationally in pass defense (yards-per-attempt). We went from there to 15th in 2015.”
Though he did not use this exact phrasing, Papuchis was clearly saying that when both run defense and pass defense are in the cellar nationally, it is difficult to fix both at the same time. Giving up 31 touchdown receptions in 2014 meant the Tar Heels were giving up a lot of points. Fixing the pass defense (reduced to 16 touchdowns through the air), even with little discernable improvement against the run, the Tar Heels went from 119th in scoring defense to 42nd – and won 11 games.
Numbers are important, but they don’t provide the entire explanation. “At times stats can be very deceiving,” Papuchis said. “In some games, particularly in 2015, we were up double-digits-plus in the first quarter. In those types of games, focusing on not surrendering explosive plays makes it hard for them to come back and win. Stats can be deceiving in that they do not account for how the game was played.”
Though the Tar Heels have been relatively young and inexperienced on the defensive line, Papuchis didn’t lean into that explanation for last season’s run defense woes.
“Part of it was lack of continuity, particularly at the linebacker spots,” Papuchis said. “Cole Holcomb was a first-time starter. Andre Smith played at a different spot than in 2015, Cayson Collins played more last year than in the previous season. You can say we were young on the defensive line, but what we lacked was continuity. That’s part of it.”
Better continuity should yield better results. The Tar Heels return all of their starting linebackers from 2016, and lose only two of their top twelve defensive linemen. Papuchis thinks they can take other steps, schematically, to improve against the run.
What is clear is that run defense is a priority for the 2017 UNC football team and its new defensive coordinator.