The much maligned Carolina football defense seemingly picked up some steam at the close of the 2013 season. Following the 55 points surrendered against East Carolina, the Tar Heels held all of their remaining nine opponents under 30 points.

This year, veteran linebacker Jeff Schoettmer and company are ready to build off that momentum and turn some heads on the defensive side of the ball.

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“The first two seasons we’ve been average as a defense. But this year, we’re finally understanding the defense as a whole,” Schoettmer says.

The Carolina defense was a tale of two distinct seasons a year ago – pre- and post-ECU, but this year, the Tar Heels are not expecting a slow start.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning watered the playbook down for his men in the second half of 2013. The move turned out to pay dividends as Schoettmer says the unit’s confidence went through the roof, freeing his teammates up to play a cohesive, fast and physical brand of football.

“There’s a lot of confidence. Guys have confidence that they know they can make a play. It also goes back to guys knowing their responsibilities better. Towards the second half of the season, we had less calls and let guys play. It boiled down that we wanted it more. […] Finally, we just came together,” Schoettmer says.

Schoettmer with the tackle (Herald Sun)

Schoettmer with the tackle (Herald Sun)

With the loss of an influential senior class, which included defensive stalwarts Tre Boston and Kareem Martin, new leaders will need to emerge on game days in Chapel Hill.

Schoettmer recognizes the hole that’s been left, but he’s not too worried. He says the UNC defense sports a trio of talented veterans ready to fill the void.

“I’d like to say myself; Tim Scott and Norkeithus Otis [are leaders]. We’re three older guys who have been here a while. We’ve done a good job of it this summer. Kareem [Martin] and Tre [Boston] are gone. We have to move on from them. This summer and spring, we’ve taken control to leave our mark and help the young guys. I think we’ve done a good job of it so far,” Schoettmer says.

Junior defensive tackle Justin Thomason is not yet known by the vast majority of Carolina observers, but Thomason says he’s learned the proper practice intensity it takes to compete at the highest level on Saturdays from past Carolina standouts and key teammates like senior safety Tim Scott.

“I learned a lot from Tim [Scott] and Kareem [Martin] in the past years – and Sylvester [Williams]. They taught me how to practice. That’s the main thing. You have to practice every practice like it’s a game,” Thomason says.

UNC training camp (UNC Athletics)

UNC training camp (UNC Athletics)

Sophomore defensive back Dominique Green, who turned in a breakout freshman campaign that included three interceptions and five pass breakups, says the communication lines are much more open on the field in training camp. He says his defensive teammates are on the same page.

“We hear all the guys talking to each other and letting each other know where they need to be and how they need to do it. Everybody is taking it in and not taking it the wrong way. All you hear is everybody talking. We’ll be sharper this year,” Green says.

Coach Koenning and the rest of the defensive staff will be able to judge the unit’s sharpness more clearly when the Tar Heels welcome the Liberty Flames to Chapel Hill Aug. 30.