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Can Gene Chizik Save the North Carolina Defense?

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Gene Chizik

Gene Chizik

For now, public shaming will need to be part of the rebuilding process of the North Carolina defense.

Even in spring, there’s plenty of it to go around.

Gene Chizik is in Chapel Hill to fix one of the worst defenses in school history, a unit that has kept Carolina hovering around .500 the last two seasons. Many coaches will spend spring practice preaching physicality. The new defensive coordinator for the Tar Heels is making it part of his central platform.

“We point guys out in meetings that aren’t physical,” Chizik told Athlon Sports. “We’ll point them out and call them out. They know that if they’re not physical and taking the mentality of the physical defense, it’s going to be hard for them to play in it.”

At the same time, hiring Chizik, the former national championship coach at Auburn, to repair the North Carolina defense is as clear a signal as anything in that meeting room.

Cleaning house on the entire defensive coaching staff was a bold move for North Carolina, and one coach Larry Fedora had to make.

Just as players are going to have trouble staying on the field if they’re not playing with the edge Chizik desires, Fedora may have trouble staying at Carolina if Chizik’s defense doesn’t deliver.

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There’s no way around it: North Carolina’s defense was historically bad last season. The Tar Heels couldn’t hide it.

• Three times North Carolina scored 35 points or more and lost because the Tar Heels gave up 70 (East Carolina) and 50 (Clemson and Notre Dame) in those games.

• The Tar Heels’ 497.8 yards allowed per game was the fourth-worst in ACC history and second-worst in UNC history.

• North Carolina was last in the ACC pass defense, rush defense, pass efficiency defense and yards allowed per carry. The Heels gave up 67 touchdowns last season, 22 more than the next worst team in the ACC.

• Opponents converted on 49 percent of third downs and scored touchdowns on 72.2 percent of red zone trips, both were among the five worst rates in the nation.

That is the situation Chizik is charged with repairing in his first coaching job since he was fired at Auburn after the 2012 season. With numbers like that, the problems are many — personnel, scheme, leadership, attitude, technique. Chizik keeps going back to square one this spring.

“The biggest thing we have to do is we got to change the mental picture and mindset of these guys,” Chizik said. “You can’t play a style of football without physicality being the No. 1 goal. I don’t feel like we’re there yet at all. They’ve got to learn how to play physical football and bring it every day.”

That much may be true, but Chizik is also changing the scheme at North Carolina, moving from Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 defense to a more traditional 4-3. That leaves Chizik trying to figure out how last season’s personnel fit in the new look.

“It was recruited as a different defense,” Chizik said. “We’re trying to take some of the spots that are in-between guys. When you have a 4-2-5 you have some guys that are ‘tweener players, so we’ve got to find spots for those guys.”

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Middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer is already one of the top players on the defense, and as a former walk-on safety, he should be plenty comfortable in coverage when North Carolina goes to the Tampa 2 look.

The defensive line has some promise, but the player with the highest ceiling is a true freshman in end Jalen Dalton, a top-100 prospect from Clemmons, N.C. The defensive backs return almost entirely intact, but this was a group torched for an ACC-record 31 touchdown passes. 

This is the area where Chizik may need to thrive the most. His secondaries were the foundation of a national championship team at Texas in 2005 and an undefeated team at Auburn in 2004. Chizik coached three consecutive Thorpe Award winners from 2004-06 — Carlos Rogers at Auburn and Michael Huff and Aaron Ross at Texas.

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Beyond the personnel, there’s the problem of his defenses getting off the field.

No ACC defense has been on the field in the last two seasons than North Carolina. The Tar Heels defense played 76.2 snaps per game in 2014 and 76.4 per game in 2013, both the highest rates in the conference in each of the last two seasons.

Opposing offenses aren’t going to change, and neither will Fedora’s up-tempo spread. So the defense has to change to stay off the field for 80 snaps in a game, as happened in four consecutive games at one point last season.

Chizik says the problem isn’t with conditioning, but if the Tar Heels get into a potential shootout, they’re going to need to be more mindful with substitutions.

“If it does become an 85-play game on defense, we’re going to have a great rotation plan with depth particularly early in the season,” Chizik said. “We can’t be afraid to substitute early in the game.”

Given his track record as a defensive coordinator, Chizik is pretty close to a sure-bet to fix North Carolina. He hasn’t been a coordinator since 2006, but he had a top-25 defense in each of his last four seasons as a DC at Texas and Auburn.

In six seasons as a head coach at Auburn and Iowa State, however, Chizik had as many winning seasons as seasons that finished 3-9 or worse.

There was also a consistent cloud of NCAA issues at Auburn from over-the-top recruiting practices that were eventually banned to pulling assistants off the recruiting trail to the Cam Newton saga that hounded Auburn throughout the the 2010 national championship season.

North Carolina has its own issues with an ongoing academic scandal that may or may not bring NCAA sanctions.

An independent report detailing academic fraud at UNC predates Fedora’s tenure and wasn’t limited to football, but that doesn’t mean the head football coach won’t spend time dealing with the fallout — among other issues.

Part of Chizik’s job, as he puts it, is to take the defense so Fedora doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day issues on that side of the ball.

“Mack Brown used to tell me all the time: You have no idea the things that are behind the scenes that never get to you because it’s my job to put them out before they do,” Chizik said. “And I know that’s what Larry does. That’s why I want to take all the defensive issues off is plate to the best of my ability so that he can do his duties.”

That means a ton of long days from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., the kinds of days Chizik left behind when he was out of coaching for two seasons. During that time, he worked with the SEC Network and SiriusXM Radio and spent time with his family — his family still lives in Auburn while his daughter finishes school there.

“I hadn’t had many 17-hour days in the last two years,” Chizik said. “I haven’t had any. But I’ve had several in the last couple of months.”

And Chizik hopes eventually some of them will start to involve more praising his defense rather than calling out players.