Having dropped their first two games of the 2017 season—all while allowing nearly 600 yards per game—the point of emphasis for head coach Larry Fedora and the UNC football team entering this week’s game at Old Dominion is clear.
It’s time for the Tar Heels to start playing some defense.
There are 129 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, of which only three have surrendered more yards than UNC so far this season. However, none of those squads—Louisiana, East Carolina and Tulsa—play in a Power Five conference like the Tar Heels do.
In addition, UNC has won a combined 19 games over the last two years and brought back a wealth of experience on defense entering the 2017 campaign.
Still, though, the problems on that side of the ball continue to plague the team in the worst of ways.
After Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson gashed the Tar Heels for six touchdowns and over 500 yards by himself this past weekend, many UNC defensive players blamed a lack of communication for the results.
Asked about those issues, Fedora’s response made it seem as if they have still yet to be fully diagnosed and worked out.
“When we’re putting in a game plan, and the coach says, ‘OK, do you guys understand that?’ and everybody says yes—then you assume that they know it,” the coach told reporters at his weekly press conference on Monday. “But then you get out on Saturday, and they don’t make that adjustment—then they obviously didn’t know it.”
Fedora rattled off a number of different ways miscommunication has hurt the team this year, but none has been more glaring than in the secondary.
Once billed as the team’s main strength on defense, this group has given up an average of 378 yards through the air to each of the first two opponents its faced and continually appears overmatched outside of senior cornerback MJ Stewart—who teams simply avoid throwing at for the most part.
This week’s matchup should provide a chance for the secondary to settle in—given that Old Dominion starting quarterback Blake Larussa isn’t a threat to run and has thrown for just 290 yards in the Monarchs’ first two games—but early results have shown there’s no guarantees.
If the Tar Heels remain unable to get on the same page, blown coverages will continue to haunt them.
“When I say communicate, that’s communication amongst players—but that’s also communication with the coaching staff,” Fedora said. “You can’t just say, ‘I got it.’ You’ve gotta know it.”
New defensive coordinator John Papuchis came to Chapel Hill prior to the 2015 season as the linebackers coach under Gene Chizik.
Together they orchestrated an impressive turnaround of what had previously been one of the nation’s worst defenses and helped UNC regain its winning ways.
With the Tar Heels once again beginning to sink back to their old habits, Papuchis recognizes Chizik isn’t walking back through the door.
The responsibility for salvaging something out of this season is all on him and the defense now.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads on the defensive side,” Papuchis said after practice Wednesday. “We either get it fixed immediately and finish the season, and still have the goals that we want to accomplish as a team intact—or we let this thing slowly disintegrate.”
UNC Defensive Rankings in 2017:
Total Yards Allowed: 587.0 per game, 7.53 yards per play (126th out of 129 teams in NCAA FBS)
Passing Yards Allowed: 378.0 per game, 9.82 yards per attempt (126th out of 129 teams in NCAA FBS)
Rushing Yards Allowed: 209.0 per game, 5.29 yards per attempt (102nd out of 129 teams in NCAA FBS)
Scoring Defense: 41.0 points per game allowed (121st out of 129 teams in NCAA FBS)
UNC vs. Old Dominion is set to kick off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. It will be broadcast live on WCHL, with local affiliate WRDC carrying the game on television. It will not be available on ACC Network Extra.