He isn’t the only one who has had to embrace an increased role.
The injuries to Andre Smith, Jalen Dalton, Corey Bell Jr. and Tyler Powell are the latest twists in what’s been anything but a straightforward season for the Tar Heel defense.
More experienced than the offense, the UNC defense was ready to embrace the role of backbone — a change from recent years.
But poor performances out of the gate against California and Louisville contributed to an 0-2 start. Perhaps more troubling was the rationale behind the struggles. Player after player echoed the same refrain about communication breakdowns.
Since then, there is reason to believe UNC has improved in that regard.
Facing an outmatched, non-Power Five opponent in Old Dominion, the UNC defense began to right the ship, as it didn’t allow a touchdown until halfway through the third quarter, when the Tar Heels were already ahead by 29 points.
A week ago, UNC was efficient defensively against Duke, interrupting the Blue Devils’ passing attack and staying strong in the red zone. Of course, an inability to close the game out — a big pass play and a fourth down-conversion allowing Duke to pull ahead with just over six minutes remaining — ultimately cost the Tar Heels.
Still, there is reason to believe there has been improvement since Sept. 9, when UNC gave up 8.5 yards per play to Louisville, despite the bad injury luck it has had to endure.
The Tar Heel defense did what it was supposed to against Old Dominion, and put UNC in a position to win against Duke. Much of that has to do with improved communication, linebacker Cole Holcomb explained.
“Everybody’s talking out there now, and that’s what I love,” Holcomb said. “When everybody’s talking, everybody knows what everybody’s got. When that happens, it doesn’t matter if we make the wrong call or not, we’re all on the same page. There’s nobody else playing in their own box and doing their own thing.”
Moving forward, whether or not UNC’s defensive improvement is short-lived or not should depend on how well it responds to the adversity brought about by injuries. For guys like Holcomb, that means embracing and learning a new role.
Traditionally an outside linebacker, he’s had to start calling plays when UNC is in a nickel package, something he isn’t used to.
For younger players including Smith and sophomore cornerback K.J. Sails — who started against Duke and had a vital pass breakup — it means stepping in and doing what they’ve been taught to do.
“Only way it’s going to be next guy up is if that next guy up has been taking mental reps, and he knows what to do when he gets on the field,” Smith said.
The Tar Heels’ resolve will surely be tested on Saturday in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, where they’ll encounter a triple-option offense that can make the most cohesive defenses look disjointed.
“There’s such a big emphasis on 11 guys on every play doing their job,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I mean, that’s always the case, but you can at times against other offenses get away with somebody who may not do what they’re supposed to do exactly. In this game, everybody’s got to be on point all the time.”
UNC has won three in a row against the Yellow Jackets. Whether or not that streak runs to four could depend on whether the Tar Heels’ recent ability to communicate better and limit explosive plays is the beginning of a larger trend, or just a brief reprieve from their early season ways.