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Illinois ranked seventh nationally in total defense in (286.2 ypg), third in pass defense (162.3), fourth in tackles for loss (7.9) and sixth in sacks (3.15), while also forcing 22 turnovers. So when former Illini defensive coordinator and current UNC associate head coach Vic Koenning introduced the Packer drill to his Tar Heel defense, there was plenty of reason to expect results.
The drill was a staple during training camp. The suggestion of manufacturing pressure and forcing turnovers was replaced with a requirement of those actions. Trying, all of a sudden, ceased being good enough. The players were tasked with removing points off the scoreboard – forced fumbles and sacks count as one point, interceptions count as two, etc. – or else incur four sets of up-downs with the remaining number after practice.
The dividends were apparent in North Carolina’s 62-0 trouncing of Elon on Saturday. The Tar Heels forced four turnovers, including an interception in the red zone, and ten different players got into the action as the boys in blue tallied two sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“If we can create four turnovers in every game, we’ll have a great opportunity to win every game,” head coach Larry Fedora said on Wednesday.
Fedora told his radio show listeners on Tuesday night that his offense only utilized about 15 percent of the playbook and he suggested a similar approach on defense.
“Yeah, it was a very simple game plan,” Fedora said. “The whole idea was to just make sure that everybody knew exactly what to do and let them play hard, and then evaluate guys based on that.”
Koenning wasn’t prepared to call the game plan simple, however, saying, “We threw a lot of junk at them.”
The aggressive defensive approach was evident in hard hits by safety Sam Smiley and pass breakups by cornerbacks Jabari Price and Tim Scott. Even with UNC’s defenders taking chances, Koenning only counted six missed defensive assignments while reviewing game film.
“We were really pleased with that, but you know, it’s a long, long hard climb to the penthouse and a short fall to the outhouse,” Koenning said. “We’re just climbing right now. We’re at the first steps and every week is a season. We’ll see how far we can get this week and go from there.”
The transition from a relatively conservative pro-style 4-3 scheme to the current ever-blitzing 4-2-5 look hasn’t been simple, and even the most veteran players on the roster haven’t mastered their responsibilities yet, including senior leader Kevin Reddick.
“Everybody looks up to Kevin,” Koenning said. “I challenge Kevin pretty hard – he had two sacks that he just left out there on the field because he didn’t go ahead and get around and contain and we had pushed them to him. That was the design of the defense and he just didn’t quite understand what we wanted.”
That level of understanding can only come with more practice and experience, especially considering Reddick told reporters that last Saturday’s game plan included “more blitzing than I’ve done since I’ve been here.”
It’s also worth noting that the Tar Heels had several weeks to prepare for Elon coming out of training camp. The players only had Tuesday and Wednesday this week to prep for Wake Forest before Thursday’s polish day.
Elon’s offense included similar components to what North Carolina does on that side of the ball, but the Demon Deacons present a new range of concerns.
“It’s different looks,” Koenning said. “It’s the fly sweep wing-T motions, guys flying all over the place, [having to] keep your eyes on your keys and then not letting the wheel routes and the post routes get behind you. You’ve got to squeeze all of those off. Their offense is similar to what they’ve done before in the past and dissimilar in other respects.”
[Impromptu fly sweep description: this play brings the slot receiver in motion throughout the formation, whereupon the player can act as a ball carrier, blocker or move on through and remain a wide receiver.]
It will take more than a shutout against Elon for UNC’s defense to raise eyebrows around the ACC, but the Tar Heels offered plenty of potential with their aggressive approach at all three levels. That’s the emphasis of the Packer drill that Koenning introduced to this program.
The intent of subtracting points off the scoreboard in practice, of course, is to add points to the scoreboard on game day.
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