UNC pitched two shutouts defensively, albeit against poor competition in Elon and Idaho. The Tar Heels also performed well defensively against a strong Miami offense on the road, and against Virginia in Charlottesville. There were, however, games in which the defense was—and there is no other word for it—woeful.
Three times the UNC defense gave up over 350 yards just through the air. Against N.C. State that number ballooned to over 450 yards and five passing touchdowns. Against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels set records in the wrong direction—the most points ever given up to an opponent at Kenan.
On top of that, the Tar Heels lose a couple of standout defenders—Kevin Reddick and Sly Williams, who were also standout leaders.
"The first thing is to talk about those two kids," associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. "Those two guys are exceptional leaders, Kevin may be the single best leader I've ever been around."
Against this backdrop the offseason produces a need for the defense to be stronger, more consistent, and more productive. For the Tar Heels to take a step forward from an 8-4 campaign, the defense has to improve dramatically, and the bulk of that work will have to get done in the offseason.
The Defensive Line
Kareem Martin is the stalwart of the defensive line group, a second-team All-ACC performer in 2012. He needs to build on last season as a productive player (15.5 tackles for loss), but also needs to be able to step more into a leadership role with the departure of Williams. With 28 career starts, Martin's return is the good news for the defensive line; beyond him there is a lot of uncertainty.
The loss of Williams at defensive tackle may be the toughest for the Tar Heel defense to absorb.
"That's probably going to be the bigger hit," Koenning said. "We're going to have to have some of the younger guys step to the forefront. We've got some guys on the defensive line that all seem to have some limitations, and we've got to get that out of them."
Shawn Underwood, one erstwhile replacement for Williams, has frequently been plagued by injury. Devonte Brown, who has all the physical tools to succeed, has yet to fulfill his potential. Ethan Farmer also needs to continue to develop. Tim Jackson was hurt during the season against Duke, and never got back close to 100 percent thereafter.
True freshmen Jessie Rogers and Justin Thomason were forced on the field early.
"Justin Thomason has some skills and he got in there and had a couple of sacks, but he played at 240 pounds at an interior line position," Koenning said. "That's not what you want."
There's a lot of work to do with this group, which struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. In seven of UNC's 12 contests, the Tar Heels recorded a total of one sack.
This offseason is huge for Thomason and Rogers in terms of getting bigger and stronger. Their playing experience from last year will benefit them, and provide more experienced depth along the defensive line, but being able to go toe-to-toe with the ACC's bigger offensive linemen is a task that will go through the weight room and training table.
Last year's early playing time for true freshmen is a trend that is likely to continue in 2013 as the staff looks for answers there.
The inside linebackers are what most observers would consider "traditional" linebackers, while the outside linebackers are the "Bandit" and the "Ram." The Tar Heels lose Kevin Reddick on the inside, a loss that leaves big shoes to fill.
"You're not going to have one guy that's going to fill that role," Koenning said.
"For Kevin's position," Koenning continued, "we're going to have three red-shirt freshmen in there at Mike linebacker this spring and just let it rip, let them fight it out. You've got three guys in (Nathan Staub), (Dan) Mastromatteo, and (Alex) Bales, one of them has a 4.0, one of them has a 3.5, and the other one has got like a 3.3 (GPA), so they are smart guys. They are all 225 (pounds) or bigger, so size is not going to be an issue, and they are all gung-ho guys. Between the three of those guys we'll keep them fresh and keep them rolling."
At the weakside, or WILL, position, UNC returns Tommy Heffernan, a former walk-on player that surprised during 2012. Heffernan put up a solid stat line in 2012: 73 tackles (4th on the team), 8.5 tackles for loss (4th on the team), three sacks, two passes broken up, and a forced fumble. Impressive, considering he split time at the position with Travis Hughes, who had 38 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass broken up, one quarterback hurry, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. This may be a position battle to watch in the spring, though Heffernan proved to be far more productive last season.
Heffernan, however, is another UNC player that will benefit from offseason workouts. At his listed 6-1, 215 pounds, he needs more strength and bulk.
Though this is how they are denoted, these are really two hybrid positions, the "Bandit," (an outside linebacker/defensive end), and a "Ram," (an outside linebacker/defensive back). Both of the 2012 starters at these positions, Dion Guy and Gene Robinson, must be replaced. Robinson's reserve, Pete Mangum, also graduated, leaving that position wide open for next spring.
A true freshman, Shakeel Rashad, played extensive snaps at Bandit, particularly in passing situations. In that limited role, Rashad had 18 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries, two passes broken up, a forced fumble and an interception. The offseason will be critical for the sophomore as he may be in store for an increased role in 2013.
Darius Lipford, who missed the entire 2012 season, will also challenge for this role. Lipford had 42 tackles as a sophomore in 2011, and has good size (6-3, 230) and speed for the position. He could be the answer here alongside Rashad, with Lipford being the early downs option.
One intriguing possibility at Bandit is Junior Gnonkonde, a red-shirt freshman with the physical tools (6-4, 220), who is the prototype player for this position, but entered UNC as a raw prospect.
Koenning hinted that the Ram position is one that is likely going to be filled during spring practice, and maybe not even then. It could be a player already at that position, such as Brandon Ellerbe, but it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that a player at another position could be moved to this spot, depending on other developments.
One player who could make noise here is red-shirt freshman Joe Jackson, who has the requisite size for the position (6-2, 210).
North Carolina returns its entire roster of safeties, but will they all stay at that position? Koenning made it clear that getting faster and better at every position is a necessity for the defense to get to where it wants to go, and changes could be in store throughout the entire secondary.
Strong safety Tre Boston is one of the more experienced players on the entire defense, having 27 career starts, second only to Martin. At 6-1, 210, however, he could be a candidate to move to Ram. Kameron Jackson backed up Boston here last season.
Darien Rankin and Sam Smiley bounced back and forth at free safety, starting seven games and four games, respectively. Expect competition here to increase this spring.
Jabari Price and Tim Scott are two of the more experienced players on the defense, having 18 and 20 career starts, respectively, but again no position in the secondary appears to be completely settled. Alex Dixon and Terry Shankle both saw playing time here last year, but things are about to heat up.
T.J. Jiles, Malik Simmons, and Dominique Green (a true freshman walk-on, who enrolled in January) are going to be challenged to push the starters this spring. A strong offseason by those players might put them in a position to unseat Price and Scott; nothing in the secondary appears to be written in stone.
"We've got to get those guys to be accountable and do the right things instead of the wrong things, and that happened way, way too many times last year," Koenning said. "We need the young players to step up. Last year we didn't have very good numbers, we were looking at one guy at each position. This year we hope to have a lot of competition at the corner spots."
The competition will likely even extend into fall camp.
"The freshmen coming in are going to have every opportunity now," Koenning added.
To read the rest of this article, check out the March Issue (Offseason Report - p. 74-81) of the Inside Carolina Magazine.