The North Carolina defensive backs, who have maintained the self-appointed moniker since the late 1990s, prided themselves on physical play and dominant defensive coverage.
But after finishing 101st out of 125 teams in pass defense, the Tar Heels brought in two hard-nosed headmen in defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren to restore order to a reeling secondary.
“(They) came in with a different scheme and a different mindset for everybody,” said junior cornerback Brian Walker, who swapped jersey numbers this offseason. “We all needed discipline in our technique and everything.
“It’s a new beginning for us.”
Under Warren’s command, it all starts with accountability. The former Air Force player and coach has drilled the fundamentals into his squad, threatening lost playing time for those who fail to meet his expectations.
“It’s been intense,” said junior cornerback Desmond Lawrence. “They want to make sure we know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. They’re really making us students of the game.”
With the hiring of Chizik, UNC abandoned its complex 4-2-5 defense in favor of the more traditional 4-3 setup. For the secondary, the transition means fewer responsibilities and greater understanding of basic assignments.
As a result, Lawrence anticipates fewer breakdowns in the secondary in 2015 — one season after the team allowed 22 plays of 40 yards or more, the most of any team in a major conference.
“We’re going to know what we’re doing (this year),” Lawrence said. “You don’t have to run all over the field. You’re kind of stationary. You get lined up faster and it allows us to play faster.
“It’s going to allow for our talent to show.”
UNC returns three starters from its 2014 unit in Walker, Lawrence and junior safety Dominquie Green, with senior Sam Smiley viewed as the incumbent starter at free safety. And with sophomore corner M.J. Stewart and freshman safety J.K. Britt challenging for starting roles, the Tar Heels appear to have a wealth of talent at their disposal.
But for Warren — the no-nonsense defensive backs coach who is yet to announce the starters for UNC’s opener against South Carolina on Sept. 3 — no job is secure. Playing time is earned.
“Every day you wake up, you have an opportunity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who is playing, who gets injured or who has to go in a game. There’s an opportunity every moment you get out of bed.
“That opportunity started the day I walked on campus.”
For Lawrence, this season provides an opportunity for the UNC defensive backfield to return to its glory days.
“I think there’s been a drought in the North Carolina secondary,” he said. “We can’t just say, ‘We’re rude boys,’ or we’re this or we’re that.
“We’ve got to bring that back.”
And on Sept. 3, they’ll get a chance to show the Gamecocks what rude really means.