Heels Defense Growing Up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's defense is still working to shed the "youth" label, but with only four upperclassmen in starting roles, the process is more about gaining experience than anything else. Virginia Tech's offense, led by Tyrod Taylor, presents another obstacle in a season of continued development.

"The buzz word that you're going to hear from our players, from our coaches and obviously from me, is the concept of being disciplined and taking care of your responsibilities," head coach Butch Davis said during his weekly Monday press conference.

Taylor represents the new breed of collegiate signal callers – a combination of quarterback ability and running back shiftiness. If the sophomore cannot throw it over you, he will simply run around you.

For an inexperienced defense, that added scampering threat presents more problems in game preparation. It's one thing to tell your players to watch for certain tendencies, but when a play is developing right in front of you, that learning lesson occurs up close and personal.

But with eight returning starters on defense from 2007, the bulk of this unit has played in more than a dozen ball games and is what Davis describes as "battle-tested." That has enabled these players to react more appropriately on the field during this 2-0 start.

"One of the areas that we really felt like going into last spring that we could really make an improvement in our defense was [what] we call ‘not biting the cheese,'" Davis said. "Not just getting sucked in on the first thing that appears and realizing down and distance, realizing personnel groups and allowing things to unfold and being in the right place."

In looking at the statistics through two games, that education becomes evident. The Tar Heels are allowing 387 yards per contest, good for 11th-best in the ACC. But the numbers that count most fall in North Carolina's favor – UNC ranks 6th nationally in turnover margin (+2.00) and 39th in third-down conversion defense (32.1 percent).

A season ago, the Tar Heels ranked 96th in turnover margin (-.50) and 65th in third-down conversion defense (39.0 percent). Davis attributes the improvement to his players' confidence in the system.

"It's so difficult for players, even though they may on paper appear to be talented players, and they may look fast and athletic, but until they develop that innate sense that they're very confident in the scheme and they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're going to use the right fundamentals, the right techniques and they're going to be in the right place, then their natural athletic ability [will come into play]," Davis said.

Containing athletic quarterbacks, especially those in offensive systems with spread characteristics, extends beyond the front seven. While NFL quarterbacks are primarily immobile in the pocket while throwing 30 or more passes per outing, cornerbacks in college must excel in more than just coverage responsibilities – they have to hit and tackle running threats as well.

"I think it's really important that your secondary realizes that it's just not a front seven issue to stop the run – it's all 11 guys doing what they're supposed to do," Davis said.

There is no doubt that difficulties will arise with a defense that is still so young in age – Davis referenced his linebacker corps on Monday as saying that, "Sometimes you feel like you almost have to go to K-Mart and get pampers" – but with those troubles come opportunities, and that's where the growth and maturity takes place.

Part of that process is shining through during the players' interaction with the media.

"We know it was a great win for our program and for our family we have here, but Coach [Davis] talks about picking up a crumb and turning it into a cake," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "It was a great win, but that was last week. We have to get prepared for a Virginia Tech team that is going to come in here looking to blow us out."

Those types of comments are what you would expect from a fifth-year senior, not a sophomore in eligibility. For North Carolina to emerge victorious on Saturday, continued development in the mental realm – not the physical – will determine whether or not the Tar Heels can contain Taylor and this Hokie offense.

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