For a stretch in the mid-‘90s, North Carolina possessed one of the best defenses in the nation, led by end Greg Ellis, tackle/end Vonnie Holiday, end Marcus Jones, corners Jimmy Hitchcock and Dre Bly, and linebackers Brian Simmons, Kivuusama Mays and Mike Morton. A stretch of five consecutive seasons with a defense that gave up less yards than the one that preceded it peaked in 1997, when the Tar Heels went 11-1, allowing just 12.1 points and 209.3 yards per game, the lowest total in the ACC since Clemson in 1963 (184.7). That spring, six Heels' defenders moved on to the NFL (Mays, Ellis, Holiday, Simmons, safety Omar Brown and corner Robert Williams) and coach Mack Brown moved to Texas. As would be expected, the vaunted defense slipped, though it remained quite respectable through the 2001 season.
After losing superstar defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims to the NFL after the 2001 season, though, the bottom fell out. Last year, the Heels were about as bad a team can be defensively, as indicated in the statistics below. The team was incredibly young, and with only three starters and one other member of the two-deep departing, this unit should improve, but, to echo the overview of UNC published Monday, it is tough to know how much quality experience the youngsters received as teams ripped into the secondary. Furthermore, only two players held down starting sports every game last season.
There was one bright spot to speak of—senior free safety Dexter Reid is the nation's top returning tackler (166, five short of a team record) and was named the fifth best safety in the nation in The Sporting News college football preview.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 35.1 (102)
Rushing: 221.2 (111)
Yards per carry: 4.78
Passing: 231.25 (80)
Yards per pass: 9.07
Total defense: 452.4 (108)
Yards per play: 6.31
Turnovers forced: 15—9 fumbles recovered, 6 interceptions (114)
Sacks: 20 for 158 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
This much-maligned unit returns the entire two-deep from last season. With a young and largely unproductive unit, though, there is still flux in store. Sophomore Kendall High (19 tackles, one tackle for loss in '02) started seven games at tackle last season, but will move to end and compete with incumbent Jocques Dumas (38-4, two sacks). Sophomore Tommy Davis (35-1-0) returns at the other end spot after a solid spring.
At tackle, Chase Page (49-4.5-4) started every game last season and will be joined by another returning player with starting experience, senior Donti Coats (25-4-2). The top reserves are juniors Jonas Seawright and Jermicus Banks and redshirt freshman Mickey Rice at tackle, and redshirt freshman Alden Blizzard, junior Madison Hedgecock (21-2.5-0) and High at end.
Despite a wealth of experience, expect this unit to struggle again. The line lacks a difference maker and could get pushed around in both the running and passing games once again.
Middle linebacker Doug Justice started 11 games and recorded 97 tackles last season, the most for a UNC freshman since Dwight Hollier in 1990. Also returning is strongside linebacker Clarence Gaddy (25-4-3), though he will be pushed by true freshman Melik Brown, who enrolled early and took part in spring drills. Brown is listed as a starter on the team's most recent depth chart. On the weakside senior Clay Roberson and sophomore Jeff Longhany will compete for playing time.
Longhany, Brown and Justice reportedly had very solid springs, but after yielding way too many tackles to the team's vaunted free safety a year ago, this unit needs to step up.
Reid was phenomenal last season and is reported as having had a very good spring. He finished last season with 107 solo tackles, 59 assists, six tackles for loss, a sack and four passes broken up. Joining him in the secondary is returning starter corner Michael Waddell, who was all-ACC in 2001 when he had 54 tackles and 14 PBU, but slipped a bit last season (38-8, two interceptions), partly as a result of the team's poor defensive play overall. Despite a disappointing junior campaign that ended two games early due to a broken leg, Waddell is still considered one of the better corners in the nation.
There will be competition at the other two secondary spots. Sophomore safety Mahlon Carey, a converted running back, holds the strong safety spot, but senior Michael Harris, junior Chris Curry (32 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 PBU last season) and sophomore Tommy Richardson will also be in the hunt for playing time.
At corner senior Derrick Johnson (39-1-6), who made three starts last season, is listed number one, but reports are very high on sophomore Cedrick Holt (18-0-2). Do not be surprised if the underclassman usurps the starting spot.
This is the Tar Heels strongest unit defensively, but is still nothing to write home about. If Waddell returns to form and Holt emerges on the other side, the unit could be solid, but don't expect it to make up for the holes elsewhere.
Reid should get serious consideration as an All-American and Thorpe Award recipient and North Carolina may get a boost from one of the best recruiting classes in the country (ranked 13th by TheInsiders.com). If a significant number of freshman play and contribute it will bode well for the future, but will accentuate the steep learning curve the defense is on. The Tar Heels are rebuilding, to say the least, and this unit, while talented, is going to have plenty of teaching moments again this season. It is hard to fathom any defense being as bad for two straight seasons as the Tar Heels were last year, but it is unlikely that this defense has improved enough to be respectable. 1997 could not feel further away.