During Larry Fedora’s five-year stint as UNC’s head football coach, the Tar Heels have made great strides as a program.
The main reason why has been Fedora’s high-octane offensive system—which has shattered numerous scoreboards and school records along the way. Defense, on the other hand, has not always been the team’s strong suit.
Entering 2017, however, The Tar Heel offense faces a number of glaring question marks–having to replace eight starters, including the quarterback.
This fact has served as major motivation for a defense which has plenty of talent, but underwent a number of staff changes during the offseason.
New defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who served as linebackers coach the last two years under Gene Chizik, has made his guys well aware of just how ready they’ll need to be if the Tar Heels want to match the success they’ve had in recent years.
“He likes that we have that pressure, that expectation,” junior linebacker Andre Smith said, of Papuchis. “It would be no fun if we just had to go out there to be out there. Now that we have that expectation and pressure, it gives us [something] to reach and exceed and go far beyond.”
Although UNC will miss defensive leaders Nazair Jones and Des Lawrence, the Tar Heels return a number of key contributors on the field. They also have new position coaches who are familiar with what they’re trying to accomplish.
Smith has seen big playing time at middle linebacker in each of his first two seasons on campus. He figures to lead an experienced group at that position which includes last season’s leading tackler, Cole Holcomb, and another productive veteran in Cayson Collins.
Since Papuchis was promoted to coordinator, the Tar Heels brought in Mike Ekeler to coach the group. Ekeler was the coordinator for former UNC assistant Seth Littrell at North Texas in 2016, and worked with Papuchis at both LSU and Nebraska.
The secondary returns big-time playmakers with a pair of seniors in cornerback MJ Stewart and safety Donnie Miles—but will be under new leadership after defensive backs coach Terry Joseph was brought in to replace Charlton Warren, who left to take the same job at Tennessee.
Joseph also spent time working under Papuchis, coaching his secondary at Nebraska in 2012 and 2013 before moving on to Texas A&M.
A similar situation faces the defensive line, which is being led once again by Deke Adams—who previously held the role under Fedora at UNC in 2012 before spending time at both South Carolina and East Carolina.
Adams, too, inherits a group with plenty of potential. Players like Malik Carney and Aaron Crawford came on strong at the end of 2016 and each appear poised for breakout seasons—while Dajaun Drennon has shown he can be spectacular when his health permits.
“The transition was as smooth as it could possibly be,” Fedora said, when asked about his new defensive staff. “Because all of those guys already knew the terminology, and knew the defense and knew what we were doing.
“There was a little learning process for them, but I thought it was very smooth,” the coach added.
Following the first day of training camp this season, players agreed that this transition is a little different than when Chizik was first brought in to overhaul the defense prior to the 2015 campaign.
Papuchis isn’t starting from scratch, but instead building onto what Chizik started installing back then.
“They’re kinda the same type of guys,” Smith said, comparing UNC’s two most recent defensive coordinators. “Very intense. Kind of the same schemes.
“JP wants to be a little bit more aggressive, but Chizik wasn’t always aggressive because we were young and new,” he continued. “Now we’re experienced and everything, so we’re gonna try and pressure it up.”
After struggling to stop the run and force turnovers the last couple years—two of the most important aspects in the sport—the Tar Heels know there is tangible work that needs to be done on the field if they want all this talking and predicting to mean anything.
Perhaps no player embodies this new focus on pressure and aggression than Miles, who has made a name for himself by slingshotting his body with reckless abandon when making hard hits from the safety position.
“We like the challenge,” he said. “We like that people think that’s we gotta do, but the main thing is putting in the work here in training camp.
“We’ve got these practices,” Miles continued. “We’ve gotta show that here in practice before we go out there on game day—and then on game day we’ve gotta show that.
“We just can’t let it get to our head, because we haven’t done nothing yet.”
Photo via Avery Trendel