By Lee Pace
Two years into the Larry Fedora Era of Tar Heel football, we have a good feel for the flavor and personality of the evolving program on offense and special teams. Fast pace, spread the field, distribute the ball, sleight of hand 24/7. An inventory of players the ilk of Giovani Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Eric Ebron and Bryn Renner when Fedora arrived and newcomers like Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer signed since February 2012 have made it easier for those two phases of the game to establish a beachhead.
The defense? Not so much yet with the five defensive-back scheme Fedora instituted upon his arrival in 2012.
Carolina has been blessed with some elite performances on defense in 2012-13, particularly from linebacker Kevin Reddick during the second half of 2012, tackle Sylvester Williams when he could push off a chronic ankle sprain in 2012 and seniors Kareem Martin and Jabari Price during the homestretch of the 2013 season. But the unit's depth has been wafer thin and the presence of one or two beasts has hardly outweighed the problems created by not enough speed, swagger and savvy. "At least now we're not one-deep," says defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. "For two spring balls and two camps, we were one, one-and-a-half guys deep across the board. We've spent too much time hiding and protecting guys the last two years. I think we've got some guys now we can start making into stars."
The closest Tar Heel fans have been to what most resembles the master blueprint is the defense the Tar Heels faced in Clemson in late September 2006. Koenning was the Tigers' coordinator then and Clemson pummeled the Tar Heels 52-7 with a defense that included future NFL players Gaines Adams on the edge, Ricky Sapp in the trenches, Anthony Waters at linebacker, Crezdon Butler and C.J. Gaddis at corner and Chris Clemons at safety.
"That's what we're recruiting toward right now," Koenning says. "We've got to start getting the Elijah Hoods of defense. Scholarship reductions killed us for two years. We're just now getting to the luxury of being able to sign a full class. Now we can build with the great players. We're getting closer."
There's nothing mystical or magical about the 4-2-5 system Fedora and Koenning have implemented. Using two linebackers and five backs is essentially saying that since most offenses wield three or four receivers every snap, forcing defenses to counter with a five-back or "nickel" package, you might as well declare your nickel group as your "base" defense.
Koenning began moving toward a regular menu of five backs during his six years at Wyoming from 1997-2002, when many teams in the old Western Athletic Conference were already spreading the field with the passing game. He leaned toward that package even more at Clemson from 2005-08, when a player like future NFL safety DeAndre McDaniel was too good to sit but not good enough to cover deep. Thus McDaniel became a full-time third safety-a "hybrid" player quick and supple enough to cover the pass underneath but sturdy enough to step in against the run.
"It's a real flexible scheme," Koenning says. "In today's college football, you have to adjust so much. One week you see this, one week you see that. The 4-2-5 has got the ability to do that. As we get great players, we'll put them in a position to shine in this scheme. We're obviously getting closer to realizing the flexibility."
Adds cornerbacks coach Dan Disch, who coached the scheme with Koenning at Illinois and then was coordinator under Fedora at Southern Miss in 2011: "It's an aggressive, attacking, fly-around defense. It's multiple and it's good at confusing the quarterback. We'll get rougher and more aggressive as our talent level increases."
Disch also makes a salient point about the nature of a defense playing alongside an up-tempo offense like the one Carolina runs. At Southern Miss in 2011, the Golden Eagles were 29th in the country in total defense, allowing 343 yards a game. But they allowed 4.61 yards per play, a stingier number than Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, which all ranked above them in yards per game. Southern Miss also gained 28 turnovers, good for 25th best in the country.
"When you play defense with a high scoring, fast-tempo offense, you've got to be very resilient," Disch says. "You're not going to lead the conference or the country in defense. You're not. If you play with Seattle's offense or San Francisco's offense or Alabama's offense, you can have those stats. But that's not what we're about. Other teams are going to have more possessions. If you get a lead on people, they're going to open it up and throw it all over the yard. You're going to have 45-35 games and still be a very good defense."
Two weeks into spring practice, signs are emerging that the Tar Heels in 2014 could stride toward better upholding their leg of the three-pronged stool. They have two young, aggressive cornerbacks in Brian Walker and Des Lawrence. Darius Lipford has moved to middle linebacker and gives the defense the edge of speed and size they've not had there. Norkeithus Otis brings laser-quick speed to the pass-rushing edge at the Bandit position and a full year of play in 2013 gives him the mental base to make consistent reads and decisions. And Tim Scott, a smart and wizened defensive back, has moved from corner to safety to give Walker and Lawrence the green light to play more press-man coverage than has been seen at Carolina in years.
"We'll be very explosive, very creative, play nasty and play hard and fast," says Lipford, a highly recruited linebacker from Lenoir in 2010 who has yet to reach his potential because of knee injuries. "We'll have more depth this year, more than the last two years. I really feel like our points per game will drop this year, total yards will go down.
"The sky's the limit this year. I believe we're finally growing into our breeches. I'm really confident with the defense this year, I'm excited to see what we can do."
"We can be real good, better than last year," Walker adds, "especially in the secondary. You'll see a lot more man coverage this year. We're aggressive and hungry, we have a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong, to prove we're better than what people think."
It's rare to hear gushing or hyperbole from Koenning, but the thought of having Lipford at linebacker for 12 games brightens Koenning's outlook measurably.
"Oh my gosh, he jumps out every day," Koenning says. "Hopefully, we can keep him healthy. He's a difference maker-250 pounds and can run. He literally walks the running backs down."
"Lipford and Otis are freaks," adds Walker, who played considerably in 2013 as a freshman cornerback. "Otis is super fast and is a great pass rusher. Lipford is one of a kind-his sideline speed, the way he can tackle, he's an aggressive guy. With both healthy and in the game at the same time, it can create a lot of problems."
Jabari Price has graduated and Scott has moved to safety, giving the stage to the sophomores Walker and Lawrence and to freshman M.J. Stewart, who enrolled in January. Alex Dixon, Kedrick Davis and T.J. Jiles are in the mix as well, the latter of whom is one of the fastest players on the team but has been hampered by a wrist injury that has severely limited his ability to lift weights and get stronger.
"I think we've got a couple of corners now who can really challenge people," Koenning says. "Those kids are as competitive as competitive can be. They want to win every snap, every play."
"All of these young corners are confident and have a little swag about them," adds Disch. "You can't be scared at that position. We're going to press more, we're going to challenge people more. Of course, that comes with more risk. But I really think these kids are up to it."
The 2012-13 seasons have offered the debacles of the 68 points yielded to Georgia Tech and the sting of late-game passes given up in a pair of losses to Duke. There have been the bright spots as well like the goal-line stand to preserve the win at Virginia in 2012 and the masterful dismantling of a good Cincinnati offense in the Belk Bowl three months ago. Koenning & Co. hope and believe the latter scenario will become more the norm.
"We're starting to get enough guys." Koenning says. "I hope we won't have to play guys gassed out going 70 plays a game any more. That's not been fair to our kids. It wears on them week in, week out. By the end of the year, we're having to patch something together that was thin already."
It sounds like a defensive identity for Tar Heel football gets closer by the day.