North Carolina

UNC has a defense problem. The question: What are the coaches going to do about it?

Communication breakdowns plague Tar Heels on defense

UNC defensive end Malik Carney talks about problems on defense for the Tar Heels in their ACC loss to Louisville.
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UNC defensive end Malik Carney talks about problems on defense for the Tar Heels in their ACC loss to Louisville.

After he became the latest member of North Carolina’s 700 club – those UNC defensive coordinators whose defenses have allowed more than 700 yards to an opponent – John Papuchis began a period of self-reflection.

“It starts out with us all looking in the mirror, starting with me,” Papuchis, the Tar Heels’ first-year defensive coordinator, said after practice earlier this week.

Through two weeks of a young college football season, UNC has been one of the worst defensive teams in the country. Among major-conference teams it has been the worst. No other team from a Power 5 conference is allowing more yards per game (587) or per play (7.53) than UNC.

In nearly every respect and at every position – up front on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary – the Tar Heels have disappointed relative to their considerable expectations. Their defense, after all, was expected to be their strength. And so what now?

“I honestly think it’s humbling,” M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, said earlier this week.

He’s not alone in that opinion. This start, marked by an inability to finish games in the fourth quarter, has humbled him and his teammates and just about everyone associated with the defense, from head coach Larry Fedora to Papuchis to the rest of the defensive coaches.

UNC on Saturday allowed more than 700 yards for the third time in Fedora’s six-year tenure at UNC. It happened the first time in an embarrassing loss at ECU in 2014, under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. And happened again, under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, in a loss against Baylor in a 2015 bowl game.

And then came Saturday. Papuchis became UNC’s third defensive coordinator in four seasons to bear witness to a complete, structural collapse of his defense.

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The pain of embarrassment, though, won’t fix UNC’s defensive woes. Papuchis’ hope is that a return to the basics, and improved teaching methods, might. He lamented that the game plan he installed last week, entering the game against Louisville, went “too far away from who we are.”

The Tar Heels played a soft zone defense in an attempt to try to contain Lamar Jackson, the Cardinals’ quarterback and the reigning recipient of the Heisman Trophy. Papuchis’ plan did not work. Jackson generated 525 total yards, more than any player ever had against UNC.

Louisville’s 705 yards, meanwhile, were more than any opponent had ever gained at Kenan Stadium. As the game wore on, and as the Cardinals continued to set records, Papuchis said he and his players became “tentative.”

“Everything became tentative, because you’re trying to plug all the holes that are out there,” he said. “And sometimes you’ve just got to play. And like I said, that starts with me.”

Papuchis faced the cameras and microphones this week and accepted blame. He said this week, entering a game Saturday at Old Dominion, has been about addressing the communication failures that hindered the Tar Heels last weekend.

Jeremiah Clarke, a defensive tackle, described the aftermath of the defeat against Louisville as “a gut check.” It was the kind of performance, for the Tar Heels, that tests fortitude. For months, Clarke and his teammates expected it to be their time – that the defense, finally, would lead this team.

Now the unit finds itself at a “crossroads,” Papuchis said.

“We either get it fixed immediately and finish the season and still have the goals that we want to accomplish as a team intact,” he said. “Or we let this thing slowly disintegrate.”

The game at ODU will provide only a partial answer about which direction the Tar Heels are headed. The Monarchs have been one of the nation’s worst offensive teams through the first two weeks of the season, and so success against them might not portend what’s to come. More formidable tests await.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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