Tar Heels 'D' Comes Of Age

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –- The fact that North Carolina's defense is clearly playing its best since the 2001 season is a major reason the Tar Heels are still in the mix for a postseason bowl. While many find that surprising, the rise in the level of play of the defense comes as no shock to the UNC coaches and players.

"That's expected, and they have to demand of themselves to do that," John Bunting said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "This football team has made progress from the end of last season to where we are now – especially on defense, but also on offense because of the leadership on the team.

"These kids know how to practice, they know how to work hard and they know how to give great effort on game day, which is the way it should be. We've got to continue to be consistent, which was the objective from Day 1 for everybody.

Bunting credits the emergence of Larry Edwards and the added depth on the defensive line as the greatest factors in the defensive turnaround. He admits the solid play by Durrell Mapp at middle linebacker has been a surprise, but notes he fully expected Kareen Taylor and Cedrick Holt to continue their development. He also likes how Mahlon Carey has accepted his role as a backup strong safety which has moved into the nickelback option.

After finishing 100th or worse in each of its last three seasons, UNC's defense is ranked 34th this week, allowing 341.9 yards per game. The season-low 199 yards yielded in the Tar Heels' 7-5 win over then No. 23 Virginia was the second least total of the Bunting era – right behind the 176 given up in Carolina's 2001 Peach Bowl win over Auburn.

"That's an assessment of our recruiting and our coaching," Bunting said. "The coaches I have on staff right now are really and truly reaching these players. But once again, I think it goes back to the players and the leaders I have on this squad."

In four home games, Carolina has allowed an average of 12.5 points per game, including a season low five points in a 7-5 win over Virginia. The Tar Heels allowed 14 to Wisconsin, 17 to Utah, five to Virginia and 14 to Boston College.

However, the road hasn't been as kind to the UNC defense, which is allowing 38.5.

Tommy Davis recorded two sacks against BC, giving the Tar Heels 21 on the season – the most since the 2001 team led by NFL first-round draft picks Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims. Davis leads the team and is ranked seventh in the ACC with five sacks – the most for a UNC player in a season since Peppers had 9.5 in 2001.

Kyndraus Guy (pictured, right) is second on the sack list for UNC with three for minus-21 yards. Remarkably, 11 other Tar Heels have at least one sack apiece. Davis points to increased experience, depth and the simplistic schemes implemented by coordinator Marvin Sanders as keys to the Tar Heels' success.

"Improved knowledge of the game has allowed me to get a quicker read, and I don't have to hesitate as much as I did in the past," Davis said. "Last year I had to be out there every play; this year I know I've got Kentwan [Balmer] to come in when I get tired. And, our game hasn't been real complicated, so people don't have to think as much and can just go out there and react."

Not only are the Tar Heels getting to the quarterback with more frequency, their once porous run defense has jumped from laughable to prolific over the period of about one year.

Carolina is allowing 126.5 rushing yards per game, a 58 percent improvement over last year's 218.4 per game. In fact, the 126.5 average is the lowest since allowing 124.8 in 2001, which along with Peppers and Sims, also had linebackers Quincy Monk and David Thornton.

In five conference games, Carolina has allowed an average of 107.0 yards rushing per game – good enough for fourth-best in the league.

The Tar Heels have also recorded 53 tackles for loss for minus-208 yards, a statistic which is well on pace to surpass the totals put up in each of the past three years. Edwards is tops on the team with eight for minus-24 yards.

"We just finally came together as a team," Davis said. "There are no individuals anymore. Everybody just wants everyone else to succeed. We sacrifice for each other and we put the team first before the individual."

But with Maryland coming to town on Saturday, this is no time for UNC to rest on its laurels. And its fifth-year head coach promises to see to it his players don't take the Terps lightly.

"I expect us to be even better this week," Bunting said. "I'm going to pound that home in practice this week more than I did last week."

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