There’s a balancing act in play for any coordinator at the college level. You have to pare down your approach to allow your players to grasp the concepts, while at the same time scheming enough to cover your weaknesses and be effective against opposing offenses.
Koenning, UNC’s associate head coach for defense, is seven games into his second season in Chapel Hill. Simplification has been a consistent theme throughout his tenure, with each year representing a different challenge.
Last season was a matter of learning personnel and offsetting mounting injuries as the schedule drew to a close. Despite an offseason spent honing the defense, the 2013 squad has seen an increasing number of young players being forced into action, while also adjusting to the significant leadership losses of Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick, according to senior defensive end Kareem Martin.
Following the defense’s worst performance of the season – a 55-31 loss to East Carolina in which 37 missed assignments were counted – Koenning launched into a tirade following practice the next week, highlighting the need for improved communication. Martin said the defensive coaches have been stressing that aspect at every opportunity.
“They’re less hands-on in practice, letting the players make the calls and then correcting it if made wrong,” Martin said. “Just them doing practice that way and the players taking ownership, especially on the back end of things, when we’re making the calls.
“Because at the end of the day, the coaches can’t go out there and play the game for you. We’re the ones out there playing.”
By cutting back on his defensive concepts, Koenning has made that communication process easier for the players.
“We’ve had to really back off since probably early in the season because we realized they weren’t able to handle it,” Koenning said. “So we’re very, very simplistic, as much so as probably I’ve ever had a defense be. We’re trying to make sure we’re focusing on not having mistakes, trying to get them to play fast, trying to get them to play hard and taking away any excuses they may have for not doing that.”
Koenning’s conversations with the media are void of coach speak, which allows for insightful dialogue on the defense’s progress. His approach with his players is evidently no different.
“He’s a fiery guy, especially in practice,” middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “He’ll get on you, but I think that’s what we need. It’s good for us to have someone always on our butt, just constantly reminding us that we need to go hard all of the time and that we can’t take plays off.”
Bandit Norkeithus Otis told reporters on Wednesday evening that the defense has “bought in a lot” since training camp and have a better understanding of the techniques and assignments. The simplification process has sped up that process.
“What helps us is when we’re able to just line up and have fun,” Otis said. “That’s with anybody. You give them something simple and tell them, ‘Hey, this is what you have,’ then I feel like you can play well and you can do anything you want to do.”
The results were evident against Boston College last Saturday as UNC held the Eagles to 261 yards of total offense in its 34-10 victory. Despite counting 104 different looks to Boston College’s basic formations, Koenning and his staff avoided overloading the players in game prep.
“We played extremely hard against Boston College,” Schoettmer said. “The scheme the coaches put in was a good scheme. We tried to keep it simple; didn’t have many calls for the game. I think that allowed us to play fast and not have to really think about anything and just go play.”
That approach could be equally as beneficial this weekend against N.C. State’s unique offense, one heavy with shifts and motions.
“A big key for us is being able to line up and adjust to all of their formations,” Koenning said. “Boston College was a chore and N.C. State’s going to be even more of a chore. You don’t know what you’re going to get because every game there’s been different stuff.”
Wolfpack offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme added another wrinkle with the return of starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell last week after missing five games due to injury.