Defense Plagued by Injuries, Attrition

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning was asked following North Carolina's Monday morning practice if he was comfortable with where his defense stood 12 days into training camp. His response: "Not even close."

Injuries and attrition have hampered UNC's efforts in training camp to improve upon spring ball and field a better product this fall.

Defensive end Phillip Williamson transferred to Butler Community College (Kan.) in June. UNC announced linebacker P.J. Clyburn's career was over due to a shoulder injury in July, and then last Wednesday, the school announced Bandit Shakeel Rashad (knee) and safety Sam Smiley (foot) were out for the season.

Larry Fedora's strict injury policy only allows for season-ending injuries to be officially announced, but a rash of injuries during camp have forced a handful of position moves.

Offensive guard J.J. Patterson has moved to defensive tackle, wide receiver Damien Washington is now playing safety and tight end Jack Tabb took snaps at linebacker on Monday. Rashad's injury also forced freshman Mikey Bart to move from his defensive end position to Bandit to add depth.

The result is a two-deep that is solid at the top with a piecemeal second line.

When asked if there was a significant drop from the ones to the twos, Koenning replied: "That's a MOTO right there, yeah."

MOTO, according to Koenning, stands for "master of the obvious."

While the first team is filled with experienced veterans such as end Kareem Martin, tackle Tim Jackson, cornerback Jabari Price and free safety Tre Boston, freshmen, red-shirt freshmen and fresh faces from other positions dot the second team.

"Our second defense right now are guys that probably didn't take many reps the first part of practice," Koenning said. "We've had some guys get dinged up and not able to go, so everybody's had to move up."

Continuity has been an issue. UNC's 4-2-5 consists of more than just two coverages and two fronts, according to Koenning. While the staff spent the spring simplifying the learning curve, those efforts don't apply to the new additions.

Mistakes are going to happen while those players adapt to their new roles. The coaches' frustration arises when those mistakes affect the entire defense. While the staff has to be patient, according to Koenning, those mistakes hamper the defense's growth in confidence and thereby slows down progress.

"There's been a handful of times where I've set back and started to get a feeling like, ‘Alright, we've got a chance to be pretty good,'" Koenning said. "And then you have days like today. We made a ton of mistakes. We're rotating so many guys in and we made a couple of key mistakes that just kept us from, I think, defensively, having a good practice.

"I don't think it's an effort deal. Mostly it's the guy that just moved or it's a couple of guys that feel sorry for themselves that make mistakes and let their teammates down."

Koenning indicated that while his defense picked off a couple of passes during Monday's practice, it gave up too many big plays.

A return to health, of course, would go a long way in stabilizing the defensive side of the ball.

"We've got six guys that aren't practicing right now that we need to have," Koenning said, adding that he hoped to get some of those players back this week. "Six guys would make a hell of a difference."

The toll at linebacker is glaring. UNC's coaching staff elected not to sign a linebacker in the 2013 recruiting class due to a depth chart that was four-deep, according to Koenning. Tabb was one of six players working through linebacker position drills during the media portion of practice on Monday.

"It was kind of a joke going into this deal that, ‘Heck, we've got them running out our ears, we've got plenty of guys,"' Koenning said. "And all of a sudden, it's like somebody dadgum shot a shotgun in there and got pellets in all of them."

A rash of injuries in the secondary has limited UNC's ability to move players around. Joe Jackson recently moved from Ram to linebacker to help fill the void.

"It's not like we can put a safety in there and over-speed, because we don't have any of those guys, either," Koenning said.

The domino effect involved with various injuries only adds to the frustration. For example, Jessie Rogers moved from end to tackle and Junior Gnonkonde shifted from Bandit to end during the offseason. But once Rashad was lost for the season, Bart moved from end to Bandit to cover the gap.

"It's amazing what one injury will do," Koenning said.

UNC has 17 days to get healthy before its season opener at No. 7 South Carolina later this month.

 

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