The linebacker corps boast three starters that have posted 4.4 40-yard dashes – or better – during the offseason, slightly overshadowing sophomore defensive end Robert Quinn's 4.5 40. During the John Bunting era, senior defensive end E.J. Wilson's 4.73 40 would be cause for a celebration. Now, it's merely an afterthought.
Offseason discussions have labeled the defensive line as having two legitimate starting groups, as well as running back Shaun Draughn pointing to backup safety Melvin Williams as the program's hardest hitter back in the spring. The praise continued this weekend at the 2009 ACC Football Kickoff at Grandover Resort as Wilson tabbed incoming freshman defensive back Gene Robinson as "probably the hardest working freshman that I've seen" come into the program.
Junior defensive tackle Marvin Austin (38 tackles, one sack) may be the poster child of UNC's defensive potential, working under the shroud of USA Today's Defensive Player of the Year honors as a high school senior in Washington, D.C.
But some observers view potential simply as an optimistic excuse for a lack of production. After all, while the Tar Heel defense provided a highlight reel of interceptions returned for touchdowns en route to 29 forced turnovers in '08, those theatrics overshadowed the painful truth.
North Carolina ranked 11th in the ACC last season in total defense (365.4 yards per game), pass defense (226.0 ypg) and sacks (1.69), while holding down the cellar spot in tackles for loss (5.23). Making matters worse is that UNC's 2007 defense – compromised of most of the same, albeit younger and less experienced, players – ranked significantly higher in all four categories.
A new defensive coordinator in Everett Withers and a slight change in concept likely accounts for those statistical differences, as the Tar Heels' pass defense efficiency rating (130.11 to 116.6) and turnover margin (minus-0.50 to plus-0.46 ) improved dramatically from '07 to '08.
"All of the stats may not matter – what matters at the end of the day is that when we needed to get the job done, we got the job done," Wilson said on Sunday. "We don't pay attention to stats. The only stats that matter to us are the ones that go in the ‘W' column."
But with five losses in '08, including a last-minute defensive breakdown against Virginia and a dissection by rival N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, there is much more work to be done defensively if UNC is hoping to break the double-digit win threshold in '09.
"Potential has been thrown around a lot in this program," Wilson said. "But I think the only thing that we need to turn that potential into [results] is consistency. We've shown flashes of the great team that we can be if we do it on a more consistent level. And it goes back down to practicing – we can't have a week where we practice really good one day and don't practice so well on another day. We've either got to sustain that level of effort and intensity or even get better during the week."
The fifth-year defensive end believes that another year of experience and maturity, as well as legitimate depth, will play a role in North Carolina's ability to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and create opportunities for more sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers. But there are still some areas of concern for the Tar Heel coaching staff.
"We're still not where we need to be from a depth standpoint, and then from an overall standpoint," head coach Butch Davis said on Monday. "… We'd like to have a little more speed in the secondary. That's an emphasis, because with a lot of these guys, you've got to go cover an awful lot of very fast wide receivers. We're getting fast in the front seven and we're getting faster in the secondary, but you need to really have speed when you get out on the perimeter."
As expected, Davis harped on the importance of fielding a strong run defense if UNC is going to make a charge at the ACC Championship Game.
"If you asked coaches all across the country, they would tell you that playing great run defense is almost the No. 1 paramount thing that you've got to accomplish as a football team," Davis said. "If you can take the other team's will away from being able to run the football, you've got a chance to control the game.
The Tar Heels ranked 56th nationally last fall in rush defense (139.4 ypg), good for seventh in the ACC. One thing is for certain – the 3.5 yards per rush average in '08 will not suffice in '09.
"We feel like anything around 2.9 to 3.1 is a good day," Wilson said. "Anything more than that, and we go back and look to see what we could have done better."
With nine starters back on a defense that possesses an immense amount of talent, the goal for the 2009 season is easy – turn the hyped potential into production. Otherwise, it's just talk.