Defensive Response

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's defense was shredded last Thursday evening in the first scrimmage of spring ball. On Friday, the Tar Heels' defensive unit fought back and outperformed its offensive counterparts.

Senior safety Tre Boston was nearly an hour late to Mallard Creek High School's football field last week due to a class conflict, and upon joining his teammates on the sideline, he asked about the significant disparity on the scoreboard. Their response: "We're lacking energy."

That wasn't the case this time around as the defense utilized stunting and blitzing to get into the offensive backfield and create havoc. Four different players – Joe Jackson, Ryan Mangum, Tim Scott and Boston – grabbed interceptions and various others tallied sacks.

"They played with more passion," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following the scrimmage. "That's the only way you can play defense. You can't play it any other way. If you don't play with energy and passion and enthusiasm, you're going to struggle because offenses are going to make some plays. And you've got to be able to put it behind you and just move on."

The offense made enough plays to put plenty of points on the board, including a Bryn Renner-to-Quinshad Davis 32-yard scoring strike and a Mitch Trubisky-to-Jordan Fieulleteau 70-yard touchdown bomb, but the defense consistently won more battles than it lost.

"They had a lot of energy over there," Renner said. "We're on different sides of the ball and you could just tell the energy was there from the first play… They just outplayed us today."

There was plenty of motivation available from the previous contest.

"We played with a chip on our shoulder," senior defensive end Kareem Martin said. "Last week we went down to Charlotte and we felt like we embarrassed ourselves. That was a big thing we focused on this week and we were able to come out and perform like we knew we could."

The defensive coaching staff was equally as engaged. When Boston intercepted Renner off a Jack Tabb tipped ball near the 30-yard line, the coaches screamed in unison, "Score! Score! Score!" Boston did make it into the end zone, although the play was blown dead once he was wrapped up at the 15.

During one red zone period, a referee missed an obvious false start on a play that allowed the offense to move inside the 5-yard line. Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch let the referee hear about the botched call, yelling, "You've got to call that, brother!"

The energy level was most prominent on the field, which was not always the case in Charlotte.

"We came out and we were all tapping hats, congratulating each other and making big plays," Martin said. "I think that really carried us throughout the scrimmage."

Leadership, according to various defensive players, was key in elevating the team's emotion and keeping it high. That area is a concern for a unit that has to overcome the loss of strong locker room presences in Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams.

Fedora highlighted defensive tackle Tim Jackson, senior defensive end Kareem Martin, junior linebacker Travis Hughes and red-shirt freshman linebacker Nathan Staub as players that assumed leadership roles during the scrimmage by being vocal.

"We have guys who are willing to follow and we have to lead them in the right direction," Boston said. "You don't need just one leader. There can be a whole bunch of us as long as we're all going down the same path with the same goals."

Jackson, a senior tackle out of St. Petersburg, Fla., played a pivotal role in that regard on Thursday, according to Martin.

"This is the best I've seen him play since I've been here," Martin said. "He came out today feeling like he had a chip on his shoulder and he really riled us up at the very beginning. He made the first few plays for us and we really fed off his energy… I think he was probably the biggest factor in us playing so hard today."

There is still plenty of room for improvement, but UNC's defense took a significant step forward from the first scrimmage to the second. Koenning elected to keep tweaks on his side of the ball at a minimum this offseason, providing an opportunity for his players to become even more comfortable in their 4-2-5 scheme.

"We're done with our playbook now," Boston said. "It's crazy to be done with your playbook in spring, but by doing that, we get to work on perfecting our plays. When you perfect your plays, by the time training camp comes, we're really feeling great about ourselves and we're really flying around, knowing our assignments and having fun while doing it."

Next Saturday's spring game will represent the third and final scrimmage opportunity for the Tar Heels.

 

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