A Humbled DL Regroups

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's defensive line received more preseason hype than any other Tar Heel position group. But after an ineffective performance against FCS opponent McNeese State last weekend, the unit is looking to regroup before its primetime debut next Thursday.

"It was a humbling experience," sophomore defensive tackle Marvin Austin said.

Those words sum up the struggles that affected not only the defensive line, but the entire Tar Heel program on Saturday night. But Butch Davis has long preached the importance of solid play in the front four, and for the first time since 2001, North Carolina's defensive line had lofty expectations leading up to the season opener.

Skeptics of those prognostications wondered how the unit would effectively replace Kentwan Balmer and Hilee Taylor's 2007 production, in the form of 108 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, while optimists pointed to more depth and young talent in balancing out the losses.

After Saturday's contest, the score was obvious – Skeptics 1, Optimists 0.

"We didn't play anywhere as well as we wanted to play," junior defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "It was kind of a wake up call, and I'm glad it happened when it did instead of later on in the season, so we can figure out what we need to get better and what kind of focus and intensity we need to take into the game."

Austin echoed those sentiments, saying, "I don't think we did well at all defensively. We had a lot of mental mistakes – things that can be corrected. I know we're a lot better than that."

Wilson admitted that he felt his position group underestimated McNeese State, and therefore lacked the needed concentration and effort for a dominant performance in the trenches.

"Hopefully they learned a lesson, if that's the case," Davis said. "You can't take anybody in college football for granted anymore. There's too many teams that wake up on Sunday morning and have their hearts broken, because they didn't put in the time… When you just show up, you set yourself up for really big disappointments."

The defensive line as a whole posted an impressive 29 tackles and five tackles for loss, led by Wilson's eight tackles and three tackles for loss in earning ACC co-Defensive Linemen of the Week honors. But the statistic that stood out the most this past weekend was the big zero in the sack column. In addition to that, the Tar Heels only accounted for two quarterback hurries.

There are differing views on what led to the lack of production, with the lack of intensity being first on the list. Austin also suggested that the defensive line was simply thinking too much.

"It wasn't really what they were doing," said Austin, who tallied three tackles. "We weren't rushing like we know we can rush. We weren't going and making one-on-one battles. We were more worried about the backfield sets and things like that, instead of just going out there and playing football. We were thinking about the game too much instead of playing it."

Wilson attributed some of the issues to the spread offense that McNeese State employs.

"It was a lot of quick stuff," Wilson said. "I think [the quarterback] rarely stepped back and got a five-step drop, and when he did, I think it was later on in the game when he rolled out and we stopped him at the line of scrimmage. It was mostly quick hitches and those kinds of things."

But Davis dismissed that idea swiftly after practice on Wednesday.

"[Rutgers] is going to do the same things," Davis said. "Every team that we're going to play is going to have a certain element of getting rid of the ball quick, whether it's jailbreak screens or three-step drops or max protections. That's just part of playing the game.

"Even in the National Football League, it is rare when you get maybe as many as 15 opportunities in an entire ball game to really truly rush the passer… To actually tee off and just go rush the quarterback when he's taking seven steps [is rare], and you don't stop the run, you might get those opportunities. You might just get three or four of those situations. It all starts with stopping the run, and then you get those people behind the count where it's 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long."

But there were positives to be found in North Carolina's victory on Saturday. After the Cowboys drove 53 yards in 11 plays to take a 20-14 lead with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter, the defensive line was finally able to get pressure on quarterback Derrick Fourroux, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs that allowed UNC to jump back out in front, 28-20.

Wilson attributed that late defensive surge to junior defensive tackle Aleric Mullins.

"Al really got us pumped up on the sidelines," Wilson said. "He told us that we can't go out there and have a pity party for ourselves just because the other team had some big plays. Everybody has big plays, and we just had to suck it up, get it together and play with a chip on our shoulder."

Obviously, it is far too early to jump to conclusions about the eventual success of this defensive line. Wilson played 70 snaps for the first time in his career on Saturday, and Austin found himself in a new role as a starter at tackle after serving as a 3rd-down specialist for most of 2007. Backup defensive end Vince Jacobs played for the first time on the line after moving over from tight end, and big-time DE recruits Robert Quinn and Quinton Coples did not even crack the rotation.

But there's no question that this highly-touted unit failed to live up to expectations against McNeese State. Fortunately, North Carolina was still able to emerge out of the weekend with a victory. But for there to be more wins than losses this season, the defensive line's play will have to dramatically improve, beginning next Thursday at Rutgers.

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