A recurring theme with North Carolina’s defense last season, on many explosive plays of more than 20 yards, and certainly a thread that joined their losses, came down to a lack of communication.
Someone didn’t clearly receive a second set of pre-snap signals. Someone played the wrong gap against the run. Someone played the wrong coverage.
It culminated with blown plays in the final 1:40 against N.C. State that led to a loss and an abysmal performance in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, allowing 543 total yards to a South Carolina team down to its emergency quarterback. And ultimately led to defensive coordinator Jay Bateman being fired and the Tar Heels welcoming back Gene Chizik.
Chizik, who served as defensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 under former UNC coach Larry Fedora, has streamlined the means of communicating for Carolina’s defense.
“I felt like we shrunk the playbook a little bit; it’s not about what the offense does, it’s about what we do,” defensive back Don Chapman said. “We were out here working on our checks, making sure we had a check for everything. It’s more so us playing our defense and playing fast instead of thinking on every call. Or if they do this, we’ve got to change the call. So that’s the big difference.”
It’s made a big difference in how the defense has looked during spring drills and now in fall camp to head coach Mack Brown. Communication breakdowns are no longer an issue.
“The last couple of years, we’ve had some busts, and we’re not seeing busts now,” Brown said. “You can tell who’s supposed to be there. I’d get mad sometimes and say, ‘Could somebody tell me who was supposed to be there?’ And now you know. He may be a little slow. He may not be where he needed to be, but he’s in the area.”
Carolina ranked 11th in the ACC in total defense last season and 12th in opponent third-down conversions. Pro Football Focus had UNC tied for 100 out of 130 NCAA Division I teams, receiving a defensive grade of 64.4.
The Heels are confident those numbers will improve this season thanks to the changes Chizik has made.
Safety Cam Kelly was on the wrong end of a couple busted plays that lead to the Heels’ loss to the Wolfpack. Kelly credits Chizik and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren for making him a better player in the short time they’ve been in Chapel Hill.
“Pre-snap when he sends out a play, it’s not another play coming behind it, it’s just straightforward,” Kelly said. “We know what we’re running and the adjustments take care of every problem.”
They won’t be spending as much time staring at the sideline waiting for a call to react to whatever offensive shifts may be taking place. There’s no longer a need to overthink their assignments either. Kelly said the changes have allowed the players to react more instinctual.
“Instincts are just part of football, but also in this playbook it’s definitely made for plays, made for people with instincts, made for players,” Kelly said.
Along with simplifying play calls, Chizik simplified responsibilities. Those busted plays last season were also a result of asking players to do more than they were capable of.
Des Evans, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound Sanford native, was considered the top player in the state in the Class of 2020. But he admittedly struggled adjusting the past two seasons while playing the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. As much as he tried to improve his pass-coverage skills, dropping off the line was never going to be confused with his strength.
“I knew it wasn’t good for me, but my mentality was attack it every day,” Evans said. “Do the right things and it’s gonna pay off and and now it’s paying off.”
Evans said Chizik understood he likes to “get down and dirty and get after the quarterback,” and now, that’s all he’s being asked to do.
“We’re buying into his defense right now,” Evans said. “We understand that he’s been there and done that. He’s got two (national championship) rings already. We’ve just been waiting for the right moment and it is right now. He just came at the right moment and you see what it is on that field.”