North Carolina’s defense returned nine starters from last season, and has started eight of them. But this defense looks nothing like last year’s.
Whereas the 2008 defense gave up the second most total yardage in the ACC, this year’s defense has been fixated on one thing.
“The only thing we’ve thought about going back as far as training camp is total domination,” junior safety Deunta Williams said.
“We feel like we can’t be beat,” he said. “We beat ourselves. If we execute, we feel like we can contend with anyone out there.”
The Tar Heels’ defense has overwhelmed opponents, leading the ACC in both rushing and passing defense.
In 2008, UNC’s rush defense ranked in the middle of the league while its pass and total defense was only better than N.C. State’s.
The difference from last season has been a series of factors, but when asked, most defensive players gave the same two reasons.
“Experience,” defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. “Experience and basically the preparation coming into each game.”
But it hasn’t just been experience. UNC has also focused on two key areas of its defense.
Last season, the defense recorded 22 sacks in its 13 games. This year, UNC has 23 sacks with at least three games remaining.
Led by sophomore defensive end Robert Quinn’s 10 sacks, the Tar Heels have pressured and trapped opposing quarterbacks like a tsunami.
“Robert Quinn has turned into a full-grown man out there,” Williams said. “Last year as a freshman he was trying to get his bearings and stuff like that. And, he’s demanding double teams and triple teams, so it gives other guys one-on-one situations.”
In 2008, the Tar Heels secondary was beat most often when they dropped more guys in coverage.
Often the defense would blitz three linemen and drop eight players into coverage. With just three players pass rushing, quarterbacks had plenty of protection and time in the pocket to complete passes.
“This year we have a whole different concepts for getting after the quarterback,” senior defensive end E.J. Wilson said. “We can’t just sit back there and hope he throws it up for someone in the secondary to make a play. We have to put pressure on him and get in his face.”
It doesn’t show up in the stat books as clearly as sacks, but pressure can disrupt a quarterback as much as a sack, causing errant throws.
UNC’s defense hasn’t blitzed more than last year, but that’s because it hasn’t been needed. The front four have been that good.
The other major aspect to the Tar Heels’ success is the defense’s play on first down situations.
“This year we are having negative plays and plays for no gain,” Williams said. “Last year, they would get three or four yards and that would make it a lot easier on them to call it second down.
“I think on first down we are a lot tougher,” he said. “Coverage-wise we are a lot snugger and we get so much pressure from our D-line. We don’t have to drop back as much.”
By forcing team into second or third-and-long situations, North Carolina has managed to allow the fewest first downs in the ACC, giving up 14.1 a game.
Last year, opponents converted 20.4 first downs on average each game against UNC — the league’s second worst total.
North Carolina’s defense, although similar in makeup as last year, has undergone a series of internal adjustments.
Players are better physically, skills are honed and attitudes are dead serious.
“To be the most physical defense, the fastest defense, and the most disciplined defense in the country,” Wilson said. “That has been our motto, that’s what we try to hang our hats on and I think that’s been working for us so far this season.”
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