September 30, 2002
CHAPEL HILL — Prior to the 2001 season, his first as the head coach at his alma mater, John Bunting gave some candid assessments of the hole-riddled team he inherited from Carl Torbush. One of Bunting’s preseason comments, probably long forgotten, was that not even Knute Rockne himself could lead the rebuilding Tar Heels past a national powerhouse such as Florida State. Turns out Bunting may have spoken a year too early.
UNC hammered FSU 41-9 last year, of course, when the 8-5 Heels turned out to be much better and the 8-4 Seminoles more vulnerable than expected. Few correctly anticipated the positive impact Bunting had on the team’s attitude, confidence and toughness, or the remarkable improvements the players made in their first year under conditioning guru Jeff Connors. Still fewer foresaw the crucial presence of wideout Bosley Allen, quarterback Ronald Curry, center Adam Metts, end Julius Peppers, kicker Jeff Reed and tackle Ryan Sims — talented, experienced Class of 1998 signees who were pass-the-baton presents for Torbush when Mack Brown departed for Texas. Metts and Sims, in particular, were off-the-field leaders who regularly advertised to their teammates that they bought into the approach of the new staff.
Those players are all gone now, their talent and leadership a thing of the past. Unfortunately for Bunting, his second UNC team (1-3) filled neither void through the first four games of 2002, and the Tar Heels were teetering on the same brink they faced last year after opening 0-3. The short-term answers this time, if they exist at all, were less obvious.
As Expected, Run Defense Terrible
Most college football coaches will tell you that the worst place to have serious personnel problems is at quarterback. Most also will tell you that the second-worst place is along the defensive front.
“If you can’t stop the run, you can’t win with any consistency,” Bunting said in the preseason. “And if you can’t get to the quarterback, you can’t win with any consistency.”
Bunting and his assistants generally were honest but careful with their preseason comments about a defensive front seven that lost six players from last year’s strong unit, including first-round NFL picks in Peppers and Sims. The coaches acknowledged the holes and the lack of proven linemen and linebackers on hand, but they obviously didn’t want to add any doubts in an area where they were almost certain to pop up naturally during the season. Most fans and media were more candid, and their preseason skepticism proved justified in September.
UNC’s terrible run defense, ranked eighth in a conference with at least four (Duke, UNC, UVa, Wake) poor defensive fronts, contributed heavily to losses to Miami-Ohio (175), Texas (271) and Georgia Tech (185). The Heels even gave up 183 yards on the ground in their victory over Syracuse, a game UNC won 30-22 in large part because the Orangemen offered a one-dimensional offense that showed no ability to succeed through the air.
Most recently, Georgia Tech moved the ball well on the ground despite having its top three tailbacks sidelined with injuries. Behind an offensive line that often got him five or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage before he faced any resistance, true freshman Ajenavi Eziemefe gained 136 yards on 32 carries as the Yellow Jackets controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes.
“We’re not a very mature defense,” junior defensive end Will Chapman said. “We’re not a very disciplined defense. That’s about it.”
The scenario that’s unfolding obviously is frustrating Bunting, an ultra-intense former UNC and NFL linebacker whose football philosophy rests squarely on his team’s ability to be competent (preferably dominant) at the line of scrimmage. During the Tech game, he confronted the defensive unit on the sidelines, at one point calling their performance “disgusting” in front of ABC’s regional TV cameras. In the last two months, the only defensive player he praised consistently was junior safety Dexter Reid, a 6-0, 187-pound contact machine who is leading the league in tackles but whose body is taking an absolute beating because of the poor play in front of him.
No Simple Answers For Huxtable
There are no easy answers. UNC simply has far less beef up front that at any time in the last decade, and that’s not the fault of first-year defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. It’s too early to say if he’s a step down from Jon Tenuta, because he’s been dealt an entirely different hand. In fact, the Tar Heels — despite their many problems defensively — actually gave the offense a chance to win both the Miami-Ohio (nine turnovers) and Georgia Tech (no rushing attack, poor pass protection) games. A creative mix of frequent blitzes and multiple coverage looks slowed everyone but the Longhorns at times.
The blame was shared equally among the ends, tackles and linebackers. There is simply not an impact player among the front four. Chapman is solid at one end. Junior Issac Mooring is OK at the other, but he suffered a broken hand before the Tech game. The backups, including disappointing prep All-American Jocques Dumas, are generally unremarkable. Donti Coats is decent at one tackle, but Eric Davis was lost for the year with a knee injury, Chase Page is still learning after moving over from offense, South Carolina transfer Carl Smalls has been virtually invisible and true freshman Kendall High (6-4, 264) works his tail off but is woefully undersized.
At linebacker, senior Malcolm Stewart — projected as this year’s David Thornton, who emerged last season in his final year on campus — has shown that the main reason coaches were so excited about him in the preseason was that there was nobody else at the position worthy of similar praise. He’s an average player, at best. Redshirt freshman Doug Justice appears to have a promising future at middle linebacker, but he needs a lot more strength and a little more speed to be a star in the ACC. Senior DeFonte Coleman, a converted safety, looks lost when he’s asked to battle near the line of scrimmage.
If the defensive front were Bunting’s only major problem this fall, he might be OK. The 1-3 start was ugly at times, but the Tar Heels were painfully close to 3-1. If Darian Durant held onto the ball against Miami-Ohio Ö if tight end Bobby Blizzard hadn’t fumbled at the one-yard line against Georgia Tech in a close game Ö who knows? But even some of the players expected to be UNC’s rocks of stability — Durant (turnovers) and cornerback Michael Waddell (mediocre coverage; terrible tackling; benched against Tech) — fell far short of preseason expectations in the early going, and the special teams continued to offer more bad than good.
As things stood entering October, the Tar Heels probably will be heavy underdogs at home against N.C. State (Oct. 12) and Clemson (Nov. 9) and on the road versus Florida State (Nov. 16). They still appeared capable of beating Virginia (Oct. 19), Wake Forest (Oct. 26), Maryland (Nov. 2), Duke (Nov. 23) and perhaps Arizona State (Oct. 5), but nothing — absolutely nothing — is a sure thing when a team’s biggest problem is its defensive front. As Bunting might say, not even Rockne himself could lead this UNC team to another winning record.
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