UNC Football: Where is the Tar Heel Defense?


Sep 28, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates receiver Jimmy Williams (27) dives forward for yards after being tripped up by North Carolina Tarheels safety Tre Boston (10) during the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. ECU won 55-31. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

I tried to pick one play, one clip, that illustrated the question, “Where is the Carolina defense?”

This is a simple running play, a Vintavious Cooper hand-off that has no trickery or deception involved. It should go for about 3 yards; a conservative, “let the clock run” play call in the third quarter for ECU. The play sums up UNC’s entire game Sunday. You and I can easily count three (!!!!) missed tackles in that one play. Three missed tackles in one half is unacceptable. But in one play? Come on, man. And the hole that Cooper had to run through, sheesh. You could fit and 18 wheeler through that hole.

I want you to go back and look at that play again, watching specific North Carolina defensive players. Watch number 55, Tommy Heffernan, the linebacker to the far side. Watch the near side linebacker number 33, Nathan Staub. Watch the D-Line. When you watch closely, you see how pathetic the effort was on this play, and for the entire game.

Heffernan starts on the far side of the field from the video’s vantage point. He ends up being too slow to tackle Cooper after running around the defensive end, and Cooper cuts back through the massive hole while Heffernan slows down. Then, Heffernan realizes, “Darn, I might still have a shot at making this tackle,” so he speeds back up and ends up on his belly after missing the tackle. Had Heffernan just moved a yard to the left on the snap and filled that gap, he would have been in great position to make a play. Instead, he decided to run in a circle, and finish the act by diving after Cooper.

And its not just Heffernan with the poor effort and tackling. Nathan Staub leans to the near side of the field, sprints the other direction after the Cooper cut back, and misses a tackle. Tre Boston misses an easy tackle after correctly reading the play. And right from the start, UNC’s defensive lineman on the far side both get manhandled by ECU’s. They both get moved about five yards, which creates the big hole.

We could sit and dissect UNC’s defense on every play. There are plenty of examples, but the title of this piece isn’t “how bad is UNC’s defense” but why it is so bad. You can blame poor effort and bad tackling all day long, but there are two deeper answers to that question, one involving X’s and O’s and one involving Marvin Austin.

Sep 28, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates running back Chris Hairston (22) is tackled by North Carolina Tarheels cornerback Malik Simmons (11) during the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. ECU won 55-31. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

I could throw stats at you all day. ECU averaged 8.0 yards per pass, 4.0 yards per run, went for 603 total yards and 8-16 on third downs. One of the reasons that ECU had all those pass yards is that Shane Carden had all day to throw. UNC’s defensive lineman gave no push up front and offered no help in stopping the run. However, UNC’s lineman aren’t that bad, I think some of the fault goes to the system that UNC plays with.

The 4-2-5 is geared towards letting linebackers and bandits make plays and be the brunt of the pass rush and run stopping. But UNC has a personnel problem. Nathan Staub, Travis Hughes and Tommy Heffernan, UNC’s linebackers, aren’t playing well enough, getting enough pressure on the QB, and filling enough gaps to support the rest of the defense. And when those linebackers aren’t making plays, the defense starts to collapse.

That has been the case this year, as teams have imposed their will on the Tar Heels in the trenches. Then the linebackers aren’t experienced enough to know where to go to make the plays, and even if they are in the right spot, sometimes they just flat out miss the play. Combined this season, Heffernan and Staub have ten tackles. Thats just not going to cut it.

But in the past, UNC hasn’t had this personnel problem at linebacker. Kevin Reddick, Bruce Carter, Quan Sturdivant, Zach Brown and Marc Paschal are just a few of the names and talents that UNC has had at LB the last few years. So where did all that talent go? That is a much more difficult question to answer, and it involves a lot more than X’s and O’s.

When the walls fell in on UNC’s program in 2010, UNC’s teams didn’t really suffer all that much immediately. UNC had enough talent assembled from previous recruiting classes to perform at a high level on the football field even with all the NCAA sanctions and distractions going on. The one area that lacked was recruiting, and UNC is just now feeling the pains of that problem.

During the two years when the dark cloud was over Carolina football, UNC didn’t recruit well. Those recruits are now in their sophomore and junior classes, and guys like Nathan Staub and Tommy Heffernan are playing big minutes at linebacker because of it. Much of the defensive’s depth and talent issues stem from this problem, because Staub, Heffernan and others aren’t ready to start and lead this football team.

All the defensive issues are new to fans, but they might have to get use to the struggles. After so many good players cycled through the program, this defensive squad may be the norm until Coach Fedora can move one or two good recruiting classes through the door.

So “Where is the Carolina defense?” It is hidden behind personnel breakdowns and miscommunications stemming from younger players being forced to play when they aren’t ready. It is stuck in the mud as the trickle down effects of the NCAA sanctions are just now being felt.