UNC's Defense Delivering Early

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – We're only three weeks into the 2009 season, and thus, it's far too early to label any unit on any team as one of the nation's best. But having said that, it's quite difficult to look at No. 18 North Carolina's defensive performance to date and not come away thoroughly impressed.

The hype machine was in full force this offseason for defensive coordinator Everett Withers' group, aided by a trio of linebackers that boasted sub-4.5 speed and a sophomore defensive end that nearly joined them. But this was also a unit that struggled at times in '08, finishing the season ranked 64th nationally in total defense (365.4 ypg).

But with nine starters back, including a handful of third-year returnees, the '09 version has nearly cut those numbers in half through three games in allowing 198.7 yards per outing (6th nationally) and 11.0 points per contest (11th).

"We've got our whole defense back and most of the calls are the same," defensive end Robert Quinn said on Monday. "We're just trying to be a dominant defense, player by player and position group by position group."

UNC head coach Butch Davis pointed to the group's experience and maturity as being critical in its play heading into Week 4.

"Obviously, their recognition is good," Davis said. "They've got game experience and their ability to read and react is good. Their ability to make some adjustments on the sidelines has been pretty good because of the experience. I think that they play with poise. I think they understand their responsibilities."

But as we all know, statistics can be misleading. Surprisingly, breaking down the numbers actually works in UNC's favor.

The Tar Heel defense has taken the field six times this season with its opponent starting on the UNC 33-yard-line or better. In those opportunities, the foe has scored 20 points – out of an overall 33 points – on two touchdowns and two field goals.

It's one thing to stymie an offense when you have them pinned down against their own goal line, but it's quite another when you have no margin of error. This defense has faced an uphill challenge all season long – The Citadel owned a plus-three field position advantage, while Connecticut (plus-eight) and East Carolina (plus-12) also benefited from UNC's turnovers and poor performance in the punting game.

"Sometimes in the past couple of games, we've put them in bad situations, like fumbling the ball on the 30-yard-line which led to a score for [East Carolina]," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "So we can definitely do some things on offense to cut down on the stress we're putting on the defense sometimes, but they're doing a great job in all aspects – run stop, passing and everything. It gives everybody as an offense a lot of confidence going out there that your defense is going to do their part."

The biggest factor in UNC's ability to hold its opponents to minimal points and yardage can be found in its third-down conversion defense efficiency, where North Carolina ranks sixth nationally at 22.2 percent (10-of-45). Half of those conversions have occurred on 3rd-and-1 opportunities.

The Tar Heels have forced 16 three-and-outs in '09, and boast four other possessions lasting three plays or less that ended in either a turnover (two fumbles, one interception) or a safety.

Middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant indicated that the defense's greater understanding of scheme responsibilities has made it easier for Withers to be more aggressive in calling third-down situations.

"Everybody's doing their job," strong safety Da'Norris Searcy said. "We have confidence in each other. We know that if Coach [Withers] calls a blitz and we're in man-to-man coverage, we've got to trust that the blitz is going to get there and they've got to trust us that we're going to hold the coverage to allow them to get pressure on the quarterback and get sacks."

More statistics – In 40 drives, opponents have managed just three that gained over 45 yards. The Tar Heels have also shown improvement in their sack (1.69 to 2.67) and tackles for loss (5.23 to 8.67) totals.

But leave it to Davis to brush aside his defense's positive press as UNC prepares for Georgia Tech and its run-oriented offense that features the triple option.

"It's still about execution," the third-year UNC head coach said. "You still have to go out and you have to master the fundamentals and try to replicate the speed at which they're going to do it, as opposed to how our scout team is going to do it."

It's true that there are nine weeks remaining in the '09 campaign, but with a fourth of the season in the books, the results have been better than expected.

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