Koenning, UNC’s associate head coach for defense, described the current Tar Heel defense as a tougher-minded unit that understood how to practice better than it did last season.
Following UNC’s 13th practice of spring ball, Koenning referenced the Vince Lombardi quote about chasing perfection and catching excellence.
“We’re not to excellence – we’re just trying to get to good,” he said.
In order to get to good, Koenning and his staff had to break down film from last fall in order to know where to start.
“The things that historically always hurt you are missed assignments and missed tackles and that was 90 percent of it,” Koenning said. “And then we got beat on deep plays way too many times for what we do.”
He’s referring to the fact that UNC does not employ a press man coverage defense. With zone looks and deep safeties, the Tar Heels should rarely, if ever, get beat over the top.
“We gave up too many big plays and there were too many plays that once they broke, we weren’t able to contain it,” Koenning said. “That’s a sign that we’ve got to work on pursuit angles and we’ve got to work on running to the ball, but it’s also a sign of not having guys that can erase others’ mistakes.
“And so knowing that, we’ve got to continue to work on being perfect because if you don’t have an eraser, you don’t need to make mistakes. When you write with a pen, you better hope you’ve got Wite-Out.”
Part of the fix relies on a better understanding of the system and techniques. The other part, however, is talent-based as you can only teach players to run so fast and make so many plays. That’s where recruiting comes in.
That latter issue presented the defensive staff with a quandary in 2012 that still exists to a certain extent. Koenning highlighted those deficiencies in explaining how Georgia Tech embarrassed UNC last November to the tune of 68 points and 588 total yards of offense.
“Option football forces you to win one-on-one battles,” Koenning said. “That’s just the nature of it. And if you can’t win one-on-one battles, then you can’t be successful. Right now, we’re hunting and pecking as far as winning one-on-one battles, so we’re having to clog gaps and get guys to overlap two-for-one. We’re having to do things to compensate.
“It’s that old thing with Russian roulette – you can spin that chamber and every once in a while you’re going to get a click and then you’ll get a result.”
There are positive strides being made this spring. The players are learning how to play and play fast without being mired in thought processes, according to Koenning, while also getting smarter and understanding the defense’s strengths and weakness better.
Koenning offered a multitude of names when asked about improved players – Shawn Underwood, Norkeithus Otis, Travis Hughes, Brandon Ellerbe, Kareem Martin, Tim Jackson and Dominique Green – while adding that senior safety Tre Boston is “making plays on a regular basis” after a slow start to the spring.
“We’re around these guys every day,” Koenning said. “You see the progress that is made from Day One to Day 13 or 14 and it’s enormous when you go back and really look at it.”
There’s still plenty of room for growth, however, which was evident in UNC’s scrimmage at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte.
“The first scrimmage in Charlotte we were awful on defense,” Koenning said. “We had no leadership because the coaches had been the leaders. We’ve got to step out of the way and let the players do it because we’re not going to be on the field on Saturdays or Thursdays.”
And by installing most of the new defensive packages this spring, Koenning hopes that familiarity will allow for an easier transition when calls are made during games in the fall.
Koenning doesn’t shy away from his stated goal of fielding a top-10 defense in 2013. He plans on utilizing the five defensive linemen in UNC’s incoming freshman class to bolster the line, noting that the addition of two or three key guys could be the final touches for a strong defense.
Koenning was even willing to share some strategic insight into the defense’s approach for the fall, saying, “We think our strength is going to be when we get a bunch of [defensive backs] on the field and that’s what we’re kind of gearing toward.”