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The Daily Tar Heel

Heels lead nation in picks

int vs. rutgers
Kendric Burney and the Tar Heels? improved pass defense lead the nation with 12 interceptions. They recorded just 11 all of last season.

A quick look at a college football statistics page during breakfast might shock some unsuspecting eaters enough to cough up their Lucky Charms.

Here's a quick recap of what went through those people's minds.

""Let's see" who's leading the country in team interceptions? Wait" North Carolina's No. 1? Really?""

Believe it.

In a season when everything's been turned upside down in Chapel Hill" the ball-hawking defense is leading the charge. Eight different Tar Heels have picked off at least one pass and as a team they have totaled 12 on the season.

Even defensive tackle Marvin Austin has joined the party grabbing a pick — rare for a defensive lineman — last week against UConn.

Pretty good for a unit that notched a mere 11 all of last year which ranked 73rd in the nation.

The most prolific thief for the Tar Heels has been senior Trimane Goddard who came into the season with five career interceptions. This season he's transformed into a nightmare for quarterbacks" nabbing four of their passes in five games to tie the national lead in picks.

So what's the explanation for the change? How has UNC shot up 72 spots in the national rankings in less than one season?

Goddard credits the defense's increased awareness of the offensive schemes of UNC's opponents.

""I feel like this year we got a lot smarter because we recognize route drop-steps a lot better" he said.

So instead of doing a drop in a spot" you actually read what an offense is doing and you can adjust your drop based off what they're doing.""

He said the younger players have absorbed the information coaches and game experience gave them last season" and that a big reason for UNC's success has been their improvement.

It also helps to face off against arguably the most talented receiving corps in the ACC every practice. Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate are No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the conference in receiving yards" and Brooks Foster has made big plays in his career.

Defensive back Kendric Burney said working against the group has paid huge dividends for the secondary.

""Guarding our receivers is pretty much like studying for a test.  We study hard — we guard them hard every week. We go into the game Saturday night. We're prepared for anything"" he said.

We're ready for the deep routes. we're ready for the short routes. It's just unbelievable the things we go through with them that prepares us for the week.""

But it hasn't just been the secondary doing all the work. UNC's linebackers have picked up their play" swarming to the ball on tipped passes and playing solid coverage on tight ends and running backs. Every starting linebacker has registered an interception and Mark Paschal leads the unit with two.

But perhaps the single biggest reason UNC leads the nation in picks has been the uncharacteristically soft hands of the defensive players.

In interception situations their hands have responded this season as if they were covered in Stickum" bucking the trend that defensive players can't catch the football.

""There's an old adage that if you catch the ones that they throw to you" you'll probably have a chance to lead the nation in interceptions coach Butch Davis said.

And fortunately it's hit our hands and they stuck" instead of just knocking the ball down and batting them down.""

The increased number of interceptions has helped flip what usually has been an ugly statistic for the Tar Heels: turnover margin.

UNC is an impressive plus-six so far in 2008" a far cry from the subpar minus-six it posted in 2007.

This positive number has played no small part in helping North Carolina already win as many games this season as it did all of last year.


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