uch like the rest of the team, the 2013 defense took a step forward over the back half of the season. Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning provided some insight as to the slow start and to the progress of his unit.
"In the first part of the year, we had guys that didn't do exactly what they needed to do," Koenning said.
"They didn't execute or they didn't play fast enough sometimes, or they weren't strong enough sometimes, but a lot of it was just not executing what we did in practice. We didn't do anything that was wholesale different in the last half of the year from the first part of the year, it was just a matter of them doing it, and doing it right, doing it the correct way, with the correct fundamentals, all the little things that we coach.
"Towards the middle of the season, if you have a Wednesday off, or a Saturday off, where they are not required to lift weights, and you walk in the weight room, you might walk in and see 30 or 40 guys in the weight room—that is a striking difference from the first year, when you might see one or two guys in there. Now it is a third or a half, and sometimes even a majority. That's a team that is hungry, and you can do a lot with hungry guys."
Koenning, not known as an overly optimistic coach or one that easily sings the praises of his charges, was upbeat about the potential for a good offseason on defense.
In particular he was excited about increased depth across the board, enough bodies so that the Tar Heels should be able to practice "sub packages" during the spring, something they have not been able to do to this point.
The Tar Heels are going to miss Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, seniors in 2013.
"Both of those guys did a great job this year," Koenning said. "I thought that Coach (Keith) Gilmore pulled another one of his fantastic jobs with those guys and got them better every week, their leadership got better, everything about them got better."
At defensive end, Koenning is excited about three players available to play that spot.
"Junior Gnonkonde has the opportunity to go out with the first team, Dajaun Drennon is a guy we redshirted this year—he's got a great-looking body, we're going to expect him to make great strides," Koenning said.
"We played Jessie Rogers as an inside guy just out of sheer need. Bless his heart, he's been playing it at 265, 268 and has kind of gotten banged around a little bit. He's going to be a guy we're going to look at for end too. He's done some good things—has maybe not been as flashy a player but has done some good things."
One player Koenning is happy to have back is nose tackle Ethan Farmer. Though Farmer wasn't necessarily seen as someone who would contribute significantly in 2013, he became that kind of player as the season progressed.
"Ethan Farmer went from a guy we could get two plays out of, one of those probably not a positive one, to a guy who became a little bit of a force in there," Koenning said, "His progress kind of mirrored our progress. It's important we keep bringing him along."
Much less settled is the depth behind Farmer. Shawn Underwood has been hampered by injuries, but Koenning saw something in true freshman Greg Webb during his redshirt year.
"We had a day in fall practices and we were having a scrimmage. A fight breaks out and he and two offensive linemen were fighting," Koenning said. "I had not seen one defensive lineman whipping two guys' butts, but he was doing it. I know he's got some potential in him, and we've just got to continue to grow him in all facets."
While replacing Jackson won't be easy, there is also some depth at rush tackle where Justin Thomason, Devonte Brown, and Nazair Jones will be lining up this spring.
"Justin Thomason is a guy we've got to get to come along, he's got experience, he's played for two years now though he probably should have been redshirted, we've got to get him up to 275, 280, he's got some potential," Koenning said. "Devonte Brown, he's got some talent and some skills, and he's coming along showing some signs of maturity—he's got good skills he just has to cut loose and do it."
"Nazair Jones is a guy that at times we saw fantastic potential out of him—he's continued to have some health issues, we've just got to get him healthy and bring him along. He can really rush the passer and in some schemes we play that's what he will be doing, so if he gets healthy and continues to progress I think he's a guy that we'll have out there on the field a lot."
Last year the Tar Heels gave up an average of 234.3 rushing yards in the four games played during the months of August and September; in the five games played during the month of November, they gave up only 156.4 rushing yards per game. Koenning attributes some of that improvement to the presence of Gilmore's coaching.
The bandit position could be considered more of a defensive end position or a linebacker position, depending on personnel. As presently constituted, the position is more of a linebacker position currently at North Carolina.
"If our bandit guy is more of a defensive end, it doesn't make a lot of sense to be dropping Gaines Adams or Ricky Sapp or DeMarcus Ware—probably better rush those guys—so we were more of a 4-2-5 with guys like that," Koenning said.
"But if you've got guys like Norkeithus (Otis) or (Shakeel) Rashad, you can drop those guys, particularly if you've got some dynamic linebackers who can blitz, you can rush those backers a lot. We kind of do a lot of things that are both, it just depends on who is in the game and who is doing the most."
Mikey Bart also played and contributed at bandit, which is where Koenning sees him lining up this spring. "Mikey Bart came in as a freshman and did a great job," he said.
On balance Koenning was not as sanguine about the depth at linebacker, though he added a caveat to the need for "typical" linebackers.
"In today's college football you've got to have linebackers to play teams like Boston College and other teams that want to ‘power' you, but really these days against spread teams, like against Cincinnati in the bowl game, they're a little bit like dinosaurs," he said.
"You might need one of them, but you need guys that can run and cover. So if you can get linebackers that can run and cover, that's what you really want. We can probably get away with just one prototypical linebacker, but we can't get away without one."
Jeff Schoettmer will be out this spring recovering from a torn labrum—which he played with in the Belk Bowl. In his absence Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo will be getting snaps this spring.
The linebacker that Koenning expects more from is Travis Hughes.
"He's got so much more potential, so much more to give," Koenning said. "He's his own worst enemy a lot of times. He's very hard on himself and if he doesn't make a play he gets frustrated. He'll continue to grow out of that. Coach (Ron) West does a better job of communicating with those guys than I do."
Then there are the guys that Koenning believes that North Carolina needs to do a better job of bringing up to a level where they can become contributors.
"We're really going to focus on how we can get every guy as good as they can be," Koenning said. "We going to go back and reemphasize and talk about as a defensive staff and really focus on—Clint Heaven for example—he has all this potential. What can we give him, what does he need to do? We're just going to bust our tails to get him where he needs to be. Joe Jackson is a guy we've got to get some football out of."
Koenning also noted that any true freshman linebacker that comes in with the emotional maturity to play will get every opportunity to unseat and pass players currently on the roster.
Overall there isn't a position group that Koenning appears to be more excited about than the defensive backs. Much of that excitement surrounds a group of young players he foresees as dynamic playmakers in the secondary.
"Malik Simmons really came on during the year. He was a corner and after we shifted him to ram he played like a corner early in the season," Koenning said. "East Carolina being the low point for all of us, but we grew from that and he was a large part of that growth. I'll be disappointed if he's not a dynamic player for us next year. He's got to get bigger and stronger in the offseason, more physical, and a more dynamic blitzer—I think that is something he can do."
"At ‘cat' safety (strong safety), I am so happy we were able to get Dominique Green here, we got so much out of him," Koenning said. "I am still in disbelief that (he didn't get named) all-conference, all-freshman, all-this, because he had it all—interceptions, a lot of tackles—it's not up to me, but I think he did a great job. Does he have room to improve? No question, and I think he will, it is important to him."
Koenning is extremely high on two true freshmen that played last year, Brian Walker and Desmond Lawrence. "They came in and probably weren't quite ready to go, but maybe by the middle of the season were as good as anyone on our team and we continued to play them more and more and more," he said.
"I think that Brian Walker, or ‘B-Walk' as we call him—sounds like something out of Star Wars—and Dez (Desmond Lawrence), will be really good players for us and we just have to develop depth behind them," Koenning said.
At free safety Koenning plans to move Tim Scott, who has played corner the last three seasons, to the spot vacated by the graduation of Tre Boston.
Koenning is excited by the depth he has in the secondary—Donnie Miles at the ram; T.J. Jiles, Alex Dixon, M.J. Stewart at corner; Sam Smiley and Jeff Battle at free safety; Kameron Jackson at cat safety; Ryan Mangum as part of a sub package (mentioning that Mangum played well in that role during the Belk Bowl).
"We're not going to go out there and only half the guys know what to do, which was shocking to me last spring," Koenning said. "It was better last year than the first year, but it was still shocking to me the number of guys we still had making mistakes. We had too many guys that it wasn't important enough to them to learn what the heck to do.
"I keep talking about a culture change here. I think we could go out there right now and run everything we ran for most of the season and have very few mistakes. The new guys coming in, obviously they'd have mistakes, but I think for the guys who have been here, it is more important to them."
Koenning clearly sounds like a man anxious to get into—and out of—the offseason and get on the practice field.
"We're going to let it rip; see what we've got."