New defensive coordinator John Papuchis can make mark while keeping most the same
CHARLOTTE – Following the 2014 season, North Carolina football head coach Larry Fedora knew his defense needed a change.
After watching the Tar Heels give up 39 points per game that season – 119th nationally – he brought in Gene Chizik, the former national championship-winning coach at Auburn, to become UNC’s new defensive coordinator.
And while Chizik was no miracle worker, he implemented pragmatic changes – namely a switch to a 4-3 scheme from a 4-2-5 and a greater emphasis on limiting explosive plays – that helped the Tar Heels reach the 2015 ACC Championship. Last season, opponents averaged just under 25 points per game against UNC, as the Tar Heels ranked No. 43 in scoring defense.
Now, with Chizik having resigned to spend more time with his family, the Tar Heels are once again tasked with breaking in a new defensive coordinator. This time, it’s John Papuchis, who was UNC’s linebackers coach the past two seasons after serving as defensive coordinator at Nebraska from 2012 to 2014.
The change is one of many in Chapel Hill this season. While the attrition on defense isn’t even close to being as overwhelming as it is on the offensive side of the ball, UNC will still have to get used to Papuchis being in charge.
However, many things are expected to stay the same on defense schematically, though Fedora said the Tar Heels could “expand” the defense under Papuchis, after a back to basics approach in 2015 and 2016.
“We were more basic with what we did the last two years,” Fedora said. “Now those guys understand the base. So now it’s J.P. being able to expand it.”
Fedora said Papuchis was already heavily involved with the decision-making processes on defense prior to this season, as Chizik, who hadn’t been a coordinator since 2006 prior to taking over in 2015, readily relied on Papuchis for input.
The biggest difference between the two might be their personalities, according to Fedora.
“Gene was very calm, collected — the way he talked, the way he did things with the team,” he said. “J.P.’s a little more excitable; two different people, two different personalities.”
As far as the Xs and Os go, senior cornerback M.J. Stewart, a 2016 ACC Honorable Mention selection, couldn’t detect much of a difference during spring practice with Papuchis leading the way.
“I haven’t really been able to tell,” he said. “They’re both great minds, they both know a lot about football. Each of them have told me personally, just taught me little things I can use in my game to help me be a better player. I can’t really say what’s the biggest difference between them right now.”
The Tar Heels are still playing with two high safeties, willing to sacrifice efficiency at times for protection against big plays, while the 4-3 formation has remained as the base defense. That strategy has been effective recently, as UNC won 19 games over the past two seasons.
But unlike recent times, the Tar Heel defense is expected to take on a greater onus because of UNC’s lack of experience on offense. That’s a challenge he and his defensive teammates are up for, Stewart said.
With 17 defensive lettermen returning, they have a good foundation to build off of in Papuchis’ first year as defensive coordinator. Despite somehow recording only one interception as a group, UNC’s pass defense rated relatively well last season, but getting better against the run has been a point of emphasis during the offseason after giving up 227.3 rushing yards per game last season.
Stewart said Papuchis has been stressing the importance of becoming more physical when pursuing the ball carrier, while Fedora believes his front seven could make improvements against opposing ground games.
Much of that starts on the defensive line, where UNC brings back an experienced group, including senior Dajaun Drennon and junior Jalen Dalton. But UNC’s linebackers – especially seniors Cole Holcomb and Cayson Collins, and junior Andre Smith – should be the center of attention.
“That group in the linebacker position ... really can be the strength of our defense this year,” Fedora said.
The defensive coordinator change in 2014 was needed, and it was expected. While Chizik's departure definitely wasn't needed or expected, his heir seems quite capable of handling a group that needs a huge year.