Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s opening-day depth chart was loaded with players that had never seen any live game action – Aleric Mullins, Marvin Austin, Bruce Carter, Darrius Massenburg, Kendric Williams and the list goes on and on.
Youth and inexperience are rarely a good combination, and it showed in the Tar Heels’ first road trip to Greenville, N.C. to battle the East Carolina Pirates. North Carolina made first-time starter Patrick Pinkney look like a Heisman candidate, giving up 406 yards through the air on 31-of-41 passing, en route to the Pirates' final total of 470 yards.
The issues were not quickly resolved, as Virginia and South Florida posted numbers above their yearly average – 350 and 428, respectively. But an interesting thing happened following that dreary visit to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. – head coach Butch Davis demanded better preparation from his young squad.
The man that lifted the Miami program out of chaos was instructing his first UNC team to take ownership of their program, something that was required if the losing football culture surrounding Chapel Hill was to subside and eventually vanish.
That speech turned the lights on for a number of the younger players, says senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer.
“The first couple of weeks, we may have had only the old guys watching film, having been around and knowing what it takes,” Balmer said. “Now you see freshmen and sophomores and juniors and everybody’s just into it. I know if Coach Davis says something, we’re going to listen, because he knows how to win. The resume speaks for itself… I think everyone’s on the bandwagon and it’s really starting to show with our play.”
Pagano’s defense has improved since Davis’ demand, holding Virginia Tech, Miami and South Carolina to 934 combined yards. The unit is far from perfect, as evidenced by Virginia Tech’s 53-yard reverse run and Miami’s 97-yard touchdown pass play, but improvement is taking place. The Tar Heels are currently allowing 347.43 total yards (44th nationally) and 24.57 points per game (49th nationally).
The rushing defense is gradually reducing its numbers, from South Florida’s 194 yards to Virginia Tech’s 165 yards to South Carolina’s 110 yards. Stopping the run is a key element for a successful defensive unit, but senior linebacker Durell Mapp is not ready to suggest that his side of the ball has turned the corner – yet.
“Not really, because evidently we’re not doing enough to win the games,” Mapp said. “That’s what it all comes down to. It’s not that the offense is not doing their part or that the defense is not doing their part – it’s a team thing. You’ve got to do what it takes to win.”
It’s that mindset that this new coaching staff has instilled in their players on both sides of the ball. North Carolina held South Carolina scoreless in the second half, but instead of talking about that late game success, the players instead choose to focus on the first half mistakes.
That mentality resonates through the upperclassmen – guys that have experienced years of embarrassing defeats and too few victories. Mapp is quietly having an All-ACC season, ranking second in total tackles (76) and third in average tackles per game (10.86).
Senior defensive end Hilee Taylor is fighting for conference honors as well, ranking in the ACC’s top-three in forced fumbles (3), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (7). Even Balmer has more than doubled his previous season-highs in tackles (40) and tackles for loss (5.5) – only seven games into the season.
“We are the leaders of this team,” Balmer said.” Being around and knowing what it’s like to lose – we bring a different attitude out here because we want to win so passionately. You’ve got to walk around with a chip on your shoulder and let the younger guys know what it’s going to take to win."
Mapp credits his success to improved health and to better defensive line play, which Balmer attributes to defensive line coach John Blake.
“He lets us go [and] he lets us play,” Balmer said. “He teaches great technique and effort every play, and that’s what we’re out there giving, and it’s helping our linebackers and helping the safeties because we’re getting pressure on the quarterback and creating a new line of scrimmage.”
With the seniors leading by example, it seems as though a different underclassman rises to the occasion on a weekly basis. Defensive backs Deunta Williams and Kendric Burney have stabilized the secondary, while linemen Aleric Mullins, E.J. Wilson and Austin have provided needed depth across the front four.
One position of concern this offseason was the linebacker corps, and things only got worse when fourth-year junior Chase Rice went down with a knee injury in the first half of the season opener against James Madison.
True freshmen Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant have slowly adapted to the speed of college football, however, as both have made huge plays both on defense and on special teams in Rice's absence.
“They’re performing real well,” Mapp said. “They’re still young, still have a long ways to go, but they’re going to be great players in the years to come. They’re really going to do great things for this University. They’re really making great strides.”
Balmer echoed his classmate’s opinions when talk turned toward the defensive line.
“Guys are getting better every day,” Balmer said. “Marvin Austin, Tydreke Powell, Linwan Euwell – they’re coming along every day. They come out here and they’re working hard and practicing hard and it’s showing in their play.
“Linwan hasn’t gotten many reps, but Marvin’s technique is getting better [and] his effort is getting better. Tydreke, he hasn’t played a lot either, but watching him on the practice field – he’s even watching film now and he’s starting to understand what it takes to be good.”
The seniors are banking on that continued work ethic to pay dividends over the final five weeks of the season, beginning at Wake Forest next Saturday.
“We’ve been coming up short, but the preparation and the attitude is there,” Balmer said. “We know this is going to turn. If you’re counting us out, then you don’t need to be around here.”