October 26, 2005
CHAPEL HILL - Asking North Carolina fans to forget this year's Louisville game (69-14) is the college football equivalent of asking New Orleans residents to forget Hurricane Katrina. It's just not possible.
But with that single exception - and, granted, a new school record for points allowed may be the mother of all exceptions - UNC's defense improved enough in the Tar Heels' surprising 3-3 start that continued progress for the rest of the season would result in perhaps the most important step forward in the five-year tenure of coach John Bunting.
The No. 1 preseason challenge for Carolina this fall was to upgrade its defense to the point where it finally could take some pressure off a question-filled offense that lost Darian Durant to graduation. Through six games, Bunting, second-year coordinator Marvin Sanders and a group of players young and old proved to be up to the task on five occasions.
First, there were the two losses. At Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels forced the Yellow Jackets to throw the ball - to anyone who saw UNC play defense in 2002 or 2003, that definitely represented progress - in a 27-21 defeat. On several key plays, defenders were in exactly the right position but lost one-on-one battles to talented players such as P.J. Daniels, Calvin Johnson and Damarius Bilbo. Against Wisconsin, the Heels often had trouble getting off the field against a Bludgeon Ball rushing attack, but they yielded only 304 total yards in a 14-5 loss. In both games, the defense certainly gave the offense enough chances to win. That hadn't happened often over the last three years, either.
Then there were the wins - three of them already, all against quality competition, by a team many picked to finish 3-8. At N.C. State, the Tar Heels dominated the line of scrimmage, harassing quarterback Jay Davis and holding the Wolfpack to 13 rushing yards and 270 total yards in a 31-24 victory. Against Utah, they gave up chunks of yardage but took a 31-17 decision by creating five turnovers, another huge problem area in recent years.
Most recently, against Virginia, UNC's defense flat-out won the game on its own. (That hadn't happened since 2001, in Bunting's first year, when Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims were patrolling the trenches.) With the offense again struggling - the Tar Heels are averaging only 18 points per game this season - the defense kept the Cavaliers out of the end zone in an ugly but much-needed 7-5 victory. UVa, coming off an impressive win over FSU, scored only on a 37-yard field goal and a safety.
Carolina held Virginia to 199 yards of total offense, the first time since 2000 any opponent was kept under 200. The five points were the fewest yielded by a UNC team since 2001. In the first quarter, the Cavaliers didn't manage even a single first down. And the Tar Heels did it all under difficult circumstances, with a third-team player (former walk-on Durell Mapp) getting his first career start at middle linebacker and with starting cornerback Jacoby Watkins missing more than half of the game after breaking his leg in the second quarter.
"It was one of the best games we've played on defense since I've been here," Bunting said, "particularly against a guy like (Marques) Hagans who is so dangerous."
Bunting and Sanders point to individual development, simplified schemes, better tackling and smarter football as the main reasons behind the defense's improvement, but another huge factor is confidence. The Tar Heels had it against Virginia even after the Louisville debacle, and many close to the program insist that the only reason such bounce-backs have been possible over the last two years is the relationship between the defensive players and the coaching staff.
Among the many painful lessons Bunting has learned at UNC, in his first Division I-A coaching job, is that NFL-style scheming won't work in the ACC unless the players both understand the plan and believe in its soundness. Under former coordinator Dave Huxtable, the Tar Heels were incredibly complex at times defensively, but the Carolina defenders often were more confused than the opposing offenses, and that resulted in so many missed assignments and ugly defeats that the players' faith in the system (and eventually in Huxtable) was completely destroyed.
It's clear that this team believes in Bunting and Sanders, a young (38), charismatic, energetic coach whose background includes stints as a player and coach at traditional powerhouse Nebraska. The defenders also have responded well to tackles coach Ken Browning, an extremely likable guy and 12-year UNC veteran who handled the team's tackles with great success from 1994-2000 but had been moved to tight ends from 2001-04. First-year linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, a former All-ACC player for the Tar Heels, also has done wonders for team morale and player-coach relations.
Individually, junior linebacker Larry Edwards finally has emerged as a player whose production is nearing an All-ACC level. A prep All-American from Florida, he led UNC with seven tackles for loss through six games, and he may be the team's most effective pass rusher. After a disappointing 2004 season, he's back in shape and making plays all over the field. His combination of size, strength and speed is exactly what Carolina has lacked at linebacker for most of the post-Mack Brown era.
Sophomore tackle Shelton Bynum, sophomore safety Trimane Goddard (superb against UVa), sophomore tackle Kyndraus Guy, senior cornerback Cedrick Holt, sophomore cornerback Quinton Person, senior linebacker Tommy Richardson and junior safety Kareen Taylor also have upgraded their games. Several others still lack the ability to make many plays, but they're also more likely to be in the right place at the right time.