"We were hoping to be better on defense this year just off of maturity and knowing stuff, but we've had to actually be more limited this year than last," Koenning told reporters following practice on Tuesday. "We've had less stuff on the call sheets. Less blitzes, less special coverages, just from an inability to execute. So we're just trying to put the emphasis on execution."
While missed assignments and miscommunications have become habitual transgressions, UNC's effort has been good outside of the glaring exception in the 55-31 loss to East Carolina. Koenning said he's still in disbelief about how that could happen.
In a normal year, effort concerns could be easily fixed by sending perpetrators to the bench. With scholarship reductions adding to already thinned ranks this season – backup linebacker Tommy Heffernan was lost for the season due to shoulder surgery this week, for example - another approach has to be employed.
"Until we get to a point where we've got enough depth to spell guys a little more and where we can have more competition to hold guys' feet to the fire, we're going to have to continue to try to coach the effort," Koenning said. "That's got to be a point of emphasis, which it has."
While Koenning termed the current situation as his "greatest challenge" since his run at Wyoming some 15 years ago, he acknowledged that some progress has been made. While last year's defense routinely gave up six or eight big plays per game, this year's squad has reduced those big plays to two or three per game, according to Koenning.
The difference, of course, is that the 2012 defense had one of the top offenses in the country to bail it out time and time again. That luxury hasn't been available this time around.
Arguably UNC's top defensive performance in 2012 came against the Hurricanes. The Tar Heels held Miami to 14 points and picked off Stephen Morris twice.
Koenning credited the interceptions with playing a significant role in the outcome, as UNC was able to double up wide receivers and sometimes place a safety 25 yards deep to protect against the long ball. Another factor was UNC's ability to get a "great pass rush," according to Koenning.
Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, currently playing in the NFL, was the cornerstone of last season's front four. When if asked if any of his current defensive linemen had been able to get consistent pressure this season, Koenning replied: "Not really."
"I think a couple of those guys are doing as good as they can do," he continued. "And I think there's a couple of them that aren't doing as good as they can do. We're continuing to keep pressing the other guys to keep at that high level and we're trying to get those other guys to step it up…
"You just do all you can and keep pressing and keep working, because those are our players. They're the ones that we've got and we're trying to get them as good as we can."
James Coley, Miami's first-year offensive coordinator, has corrected the pass protection issues that UNC was able to capitalize on during its victory in Miami Gardens last October. The Hurricanes have only allowed four sacks in five games this season.
"Probably the place that is as improved as any is the offensive line," Koenning said of Miami. "They're really playing aggressive. They've got guys that are big and they can really move; they get out on the screen passes. The whole group, they've just improved immensely."
Despite Miami's offensive front playing inspired ball, the Hurricanes' wealth of talent and speed at the skill positions – led by sophomore running back Duke Johnson – will limit UNC's ability to send blitzes to frustrate Morris.
"We're going to have to get some pressure with four, because if you go five, then you're running into issues with coverage," Koenning said. "And if you go six, you're really running into issues with coverage, so we've got to find a way to get pressure with four."
Whether it occurs at the line of scrimmage or in the defensive secondary, the Tar Heels will have to win their share of individual battles to contain Miami's potent offense.
"Somebody's got to win one-on-one," Koenning said. "It doesn't matter if you're playing three-deep [coverage], when that receiver runs down on top of you, it's one-on-one down there. So we've just got to make plays."
While the odds are seemingly stacked in Miami's favor, an upset could swing momentum back in UNC's favor after a disastrous 1-4 start. That will require the offense breaking out of its slump as well as the defense playing its most complete game to date.
"It will be a great test for our guys to see what we've got," Koenning said. "We know we have to play as hard as we can and limit our mistakes and missed tackles, because those are two things that get you beat. Just play fanatical and fly around and hopefully some good things will happen for us."