The defensive line came under attack last season by opposing offenses. Playing four first-time starters and experiencing injuries throughout the season, offenses exploited their youth and inexperience. The Tar Heels finished last in the ACC in rushing defense, were eighth in the league in sacks, and allowed opponents to convert third down more than any other ACC team. While defense is played as a unit, the inexperienced defensive line played their part in those statistics.
This spring the defensive coaching staff is looking for players, and a defensive unit as a whole, that can reach their potential.
Donti Coats is one of the more veteran members of the defensive line. He is a player that has shown flashes of talent, but perhaps has never reached his potential, though he has experienced injuries throughout his career that may be partly responsible for that.
"Donti Coats has made it through the spring healthy," North Carolina head coach John Bunting said Wednesday. "I'm hopeful that he'll continue to get better. He certainly has talent. There's a lot of talent and he could be a big, big help to us if we were to reach his potential. That's what we've got to do. We've got to find a way to get Donti to reach his potential."
North Carolina has a new defensive line coach in Brad Lawing, who continued the theme on Wednesday of getting the most out of the players he has. "The thing that we've got to do defensively as far as goals, we've got to somehow reach our potential. Now, what that potential is, I don't know. But I hope to know soon. Let's reach our potential," Lawing said.
One defensive tackle that has caught the eye of Lawing is senior Isaac Mooring. "Isaac Mooring, in my opinion, has made tremendous progress. We put him down there, he's a little bit light right now, but we can get that corrected through the summer. But, he's made tremendous progress and has made a lot of improvement at defensive tackle. So, he, probably more than anybody, at that position, has caught my eye," Lawing said.
Mooring played defensive end last season, and his move to defensive tackle was one of several made by Lawing. Another defensive end, Jermicus Banks was moved inside to tackle, while Kendall High, who started seven games last season at defensive tackle, has been moved to defensive end.
" One of the most important things a coach can do is to get the players in the right position to make the plays," Lawing said. "Just watching tape and watching these guys in the off season, these are moves that I though could help our team. One thing it's done for Isaac and Jermicus is that it's probably toughened them up a little bit to play inside. They can play inside and outside. But, just trying to get the guys in the right position and put a cohesive unit on the field that works well together – that's our job as coaches and that's what we're trying to get accomplished here."
Another move made by the coaching staff was to shift fullback Madison Hedgecock to defensive end permanently. Hedgecock moved there during the latter part of the 2002 season but then started out the spring back in the fullback spot. Now he appears to be a fixture at defensive end.
"Madison, right away, brings a lot of energy to our defense, which is good," Bunting said. "Once again, he creates more competition at the defensive end position."
Chase Page, who started all 12 games last year at defensive tackle, has missed nearly all of spring practice, but was back yesterday.
"He finally got on the practice field and went through a whole practice today," Bunting said. "I'm encouraged by that. I started to get really concerned. He's missed a lot of spring – missed a lot of football, but he'll have to make up for it in the summer."
Lawing was also glad to see Page on the football field. "He did a good job," Lawing said. "Chase is a good football player. I've seen him on tape, but this is the first time I've had a chance to really work with him. So, it was exciting to work with him today at practice. He's got skills."
The true freshmen coming in next year, several projected at defensive line positions, have been the subject of a lot of off-season conversations, but Lawing is taking a "wait-and-see" approach.
"You watch guys on tape, you watch them play, but until they get here and prove themselves, I don't even like to hardly comment about it because I don't want to set myself for disappointment," Lawing said. "Let them come in and prove themselves."
Toughness and leadership have been two other themes the coaching staff have emphasized throughout the spring.
"We're trying to develop some toughness right now and we have," Lawing said." We've done that to a certain degree. But, we've still got a long way to go as far as where we need to be to get ready to play, which is very typical this time of the year. We've got some young guys making improvements and, again, we're trying to develop some leadership in some of these guys."
Lawing indicated that the Tar Heels are still seeking ways to reverse those defensive statistics. "We've really concentrated on playing the run scheme and I hope we're doing good – I'm not going to compare anything to last year because I'm new. We're still looking for a defensive end that can be an effective pass rusher on third down."
" We've still got a long way to go with our defensive line," Bunting said, a comment echoed by Lawing."
"We're not there yet," Lawing said. "We've got a long way to go and we've got two more practices, we've got the off season. Am I encouraged? Yes, I am encouraged. I'm not discouraged at all with what's going on. I'm encouraged with it, but I just know we've got a lot of work to do."