UNC defense hopes players-only meeting after loss to Notre Dame helps turn things around

For all the yards and points that North Carolina’s defense has given up this season, it’s not giving up this season.

And for the public scenes, like cornerback Tony Grimes taking a swing at linebacker Noah Taylor after getting a late-hit penalty against Notre Dame, there are also private ones. Like Sunday, when a group chat conversation over text led the entire defense to come together for a meeting.

They’re not coming unraveled. They’re trying to hold it together.

“It’s not like a major fix or anything, but I think it was good to just have a man-to-man conversation with the people that are on the field that had nothing to do with the coaches or schematically or anything like that,” nose tackle Ray Vohasek said. “It’s more of a man-to-man conversation like, ‘Hey, we need to turn this thing around.’ ”

The Tar Heels are last in the ACC in run defense (216.5 yards per game), pass defense (278.8 yards per game), total defense (495.3 yards per game), average yards per play (6.4), touchdowns allowed (21) and scoring defense, at 39.5 points per game.

Vohasek said everyone — from starters to players who have never been in for a snap — voiced their opinions on what needs to change. There’s not a position group on the defense that is absolved from blame.

“Some guys were kind of saying that they feel like we’re not a complete defense,” Vohasek said. “Some guys are kind of playing by themselves and we’re not one whole unit. We’re not playing as 11 guys, and I think that was one of the main points.”

UNC coach Mack Brown said on Wednesday that he was unaware of the meeting beforehand and didn’t plan on asking about the details. He would rather his players feel empowered and take ownership over how they have been playing.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown reacts to a pass interference call against his team in the third quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday, September 24, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown reacts to a pass interference call against his team in the third quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday, September 24, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“That’s something that we’ve talked about so much since last year, and they feel that need to step up,” Brown said. “We’ve seen a couple of confrontations on the sideline and people have gotten stirred up about it. It’s really a positive thing for us because we need people to start calling each other out and calling on each other. We need a better response when they do because we need to keep our composure and not get frustrated. But that’s all part of growing up.”

Last week, on paper, seemed like a chance to get right with Notre Dame’s offense operating with a backup quarterback and only producing 300 yards per game entering the matchup. But the Fighting Irish rolled up a season-high 576 yards en route to their 45-32 victory.

Cornerback Storm Duck said it’s not a lack of talent that has held the Heels back this season. He believes they tend to lose focus, which has led to their inconsistent play.

“We have everybody that we need, and knowing what we’re capable of doing is probably another reason why we’re frustrated,” Duck said. “Our main goal is to change that and play how we’re supposed to play.”

Appalachian State’s Christian Wells (9) pulls in a two yard pass completion for a touchdown ahead of North Carolina’s Storm Duck (3) to take a 21-7 lead in the second quarter on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C.
Appalachian State’s Christian Wells (9) pulls in a two yard pass completion for a touchdown ahead of North Carolina’s Storm Duck (3) to take a 21-7 lead in the second quarter on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C.

One area that could help improve things quickly for the Heels is their red-zone defense. They’re tied with Georgia Tech in the ACC with 10 red-zone touchdowns allowed. Opponents have scored on 11 of 12 trips inside the UNC 20, which ranks 12th in the conference.

Their lone stop came against the Irish when Don Chapman forced a goal-line fumble that Will Hardy recovered in the end zone.

If the Heels can turn those touchdowns to field goals, it would be a much-needed confidence boost. They may have just the right matchup this week to give them the boost they need.

Virginia Tech (2-2, 1-0 ACC) will enter Kenan Stadium last in the ACC in red-zone offense with just 10 trips this season. The Hokies’ six red-zone touchdowns are second to only Georgia Tech for the fewest in the conference. They are 12th in the ACC in total offense, averaging just 330 yards per game.

A solid performance could be just the springboard Carolina (3-1, 0-0) needs as it begins conference play in a Coastal Division where, seemingly, no team is out of contention.

“We feel like at one point, it’s going to come together and click,” UNC assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “But right now, we’re struggling and we know that. The players know it, coaches know it, and that’s where we are. But realistically, we still feel good about being able to put it all together, and it’s just a matter of time before we get that done.”