"You can't play hard if you don't really know what you're doing," UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Wednesday's practice.
Fedora described his defense a season ago as being reluctant and waiting for something to happen. To be successful defensively, however, a player has to be able to react on the fly and play loose at full blast.
Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning woke up Sunday morning encouraged about his defense despite the loss to Georgia Tech due to its effort level. The season opener against South Carolina represented the hardest UNC had played defensively since Koenning arrived in Chapel Hill. The Middle Tennessee game took that title one week later and now the Georgia Tech contest has taken over the top spot.
"Everybody knows the defense now, so we can play full speed and not worry about our responsibility because we already know it," senior defensive end Kareem Martin said.
Koenning believes the increased effort is the result of two variables.
"These guys are allowing us to coach them a little harder," Koenning said. "And I think it means we've got guys that play harder that don't try to pace themselves. Last year, it was a little hard to get them to – and we still don't practice anywhere near like I would like them to practice. They're driving me crazy in practice, but you know, we've been playing hard in every game."
Koenning is pushing his players to practice faster to simulate live game situations. He equated the issue to making three-quarter golf swings on the driving range when full swings are needed to carry over to the golf course.
Quality depth has also played a role. While the coaching staff expressed confidence in the first team during training camp, it was the backups that were a concern. That wasn't the case in Atlanta.
"It wasn't just Norkeithus [Otis] or Travis [Hughes] or a couple of guys with the starters," Koenning said. "It was the second-tier guys and the third-tier guys that actually rose to the occasion this week where they had been the guys that had let us down so much before."
** Speaking of Otis, the junior Bandit (17 tackles) leads the defense in six statistical categories, including sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (4.5).
The Gastonia, N.C. product prevented a potential touchdown run and forced two fumbles in one possession last Saturday against the Yellow Jackets.
"I said all of the way through fall camp that Otis is really playing the game the way it's supposed to be played," Fedora said. "When those six seconds are ticking off on that play, he will go as hard as he can possibly go. Then he's lining up and getting ready for the next six seconds…
"He brings a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of intensity to the defense."
Otis also displayed his inexperience with an unsportsmanlike penalty on a fourth down fake punt call that resulted in a Georgia Tech first down in the first quarter.
Fedora's message to Otis on Sunday was blunt: "Can't do it."
"Personal fouls are basically just being selfish," the second-year UNC head coach said. "That's all they are. You've got to think about the team."
** In Ruffin McNeill's first season at East Carolina in 2010, the Pirates allowed 5.33 yards per rush, good for 116th nationally. That number dropped to 4.54 in 2011 and then to 4.31 in 2012. Through three games this season, ECU is holding its opponents to 2.71 yards per carry, good for 12th nationally.
"They're basing out of a 3-4 more this year," Fedora said in explaining ECU's improved run defense. "You're going to see multiple blitzes, a lot of twisting, a lot of different things with the guys up front. They're doing a nice job of it. They're really heavy inside and they've adapted well to what they're doing."
The Pirates' run defense took a hit on Tuesday when McNeill announced the indefinite suspension of starting nose tackle Terry Williams.