In a span of six quarters, the Tar Heels missed 42 defensive assignments in 110 snaps.
The mistakes were glaring. There was corner-safety confusion that led to a couple of touchdowns, a lack of communication between the back seven that allowed Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro to post a career day primarily on crossing routes and front seven errors on gap fits.
Head coach Larry Fedora highlighted lapses in intensity and execution in detailing the problems. The coaches could handle the weak energy level through increased demand in practice; execution, however, was a different matter. While Disch, UNC’s defensive coordinator, and Koenning, associate head coach for defense, have consistently accepted responsibility for their players’ seemingly slow assimilation of the 4-2-5, the game plan for Louisville was stripped to bare bones level and the first-half results (36 points, 360 yards) were still crippling.
Fedora challenged his team in the week following the Wake Forest loss to spend more time studying the playbook and reviewing game film in their free time. The NCAA-maximum of 20 hours per week and four hours per day only restrict the coaches’ teaching time; those requirements don’t extend to personal time commitment.
After that disastrous first half at Louisville, the defensive scheme finally clicked for the Tar Heels during the final 30 minutes. UNC only missed two defensive assignments and managed to hold the Cardinals to just three points over the final two quarters.
On Monday, linebacker Tommy Heffernan pointed toward that second-half performance as a revelation of sorts for this Tar Heel defense.
“That’s how we can play and that’s how we should play,” Heffernan said. “That’s how we know how to play.”
That production carried over on Saturday against East Carolina. The Pirates were limited to six points and 233 total offensive yards. While Heffernan didn’t know the exact number of missed assignments against ECU, he did say the total was considerably less than the 20 M.A.’s UNC had at Louisville.
Those positive results have snowballed both in intensity and preparation. According to Heffernan, players have their noses in their playbooks and reside in the film room “more than ever.”
“We’re starting to get into the swing of things,” Heffernan said. “I think a lot of guys on the team are also realizing that if we’re not taking the mental part away from our game plan each week and not taking that seriously, it’s going to bite us in the butt. That’s shown against Wake Forest and Louisville that when you have missed assignments, you can lose football games, so guys are starting to take that more seriously.”
That light switch moment allowed the coaching staff to add a few more layers to the defensive game plan against East Carolina.
“There were some pressures that we designed that Vic and Disch and those guys designed for that team and, again, that’s part of scheming, that’s part of the game plan and they took advantage of some things we felt like we could,” Fedora said. “The guys did a nice job responding and some of it was just one-on-one beating guys. Where guys are not having to think as much and just go play ball.”
Middle linebacker Kevin Reddick agreed, saying that a better understanding of the schemes was a primary reason for Saturday’s success.
“We really didn’t add too much, it was probably still basic, it’s just that we executed it,” Reddick said. “The coaches are trying to keep things simpler for the guys. All we have to do is execute it and we still can bring blitzes from everywhere, just make it simpler.”
Eight different Tar Heels combined for UNC’s seven sacks against East Carolina. Only nine players total registered a sack in 13 games in 2011.
North Carolina currently leads the ACC in both sacks (3.25) and tackles for loss (9.25).
“You need to know what you’re doing to be able to play fast,” Heffernan said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not going to play to your full potential and you’re not going to play as fast as you can.”
North Carolina will be afforded one more nonconference contest to smooth out its dulling edges against Idaho on Saturday before the seven-game ACC slate to end the season begins with Virginia Tech on Oct. 6.
“I don’t think we’ll ever play a perfect game, but that’s what we strive for every week,” Heffernan said. “… We’re starting to realize the potential of what this defense really can do if we run it the right way.”
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