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Monday December 6th

Renewed UNC football defense prepares for debut against South Carolina

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In his first career start at linebacker for the North Carolina football team, Schoettmer, then a redshirt sophomore, didn’t know what to expect when the Tar Heels opened the 2013 season at South Carolina.

But with the support of the veterans around him, he settled down, recording seven tackles in a 27-10 loss to the Gamecocks.

Now a redshirt senior, Schoettmer knows when UNC opens its season against South Carolina on Thursday, the underclassmen on the Tar Heels’ defense will look to him for the same encouragement he once sought.

“I’m the older guy, and I’ve got to help the younger guys around me,” he said.

“That’s going to be my job. It’s kind of funny how my role has reversed in two years.”

Schoettmer’s ascent to leadership isn’t the only change that’s occurred on the UNC defense since the Tar Heels and Gamecocks met two years ago.

UNC finished 56th and 64th in the nation in total defense in 2012 and 2013, respectively. But after allowing 497.8 yards per game in 2014, the Tar Heels plummeted to 117th in the same category.

The defense’s struggles resulted in the dismissal of Vic Koenning, the associate head coach for defense, and the hiring of new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik this past offseason.

Chizik and his staff have spent months installing a more traditional 4-3 scheme, and after much anticipation, Thursday’s nationally televised game serves as the debut.

“I’m very anxious to see it,” Coach Larry Fedora said. “You have no way of knowing (how far the defense has come) until we get out there, start playing another team and see how we react to all of the scenarios that are going to come up in a game.

“The defensive staff has done a great job of preparing them and coaching them. Now we’ve got to turn them loose and let them play.”

While the UNC defense has undergone an extensive overhaul, not much has changed with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier’s potent offense, which has scored 30 points or more in 36 of its past 66 games.

In the two teams’ previous matchup, South Carolina torched the Tar Heels for three touchdowns of 29 yards or more. And after being susceptible to big plays in 2014, the UNC defense is determined to cut back on those plays this season — starting against the Gamecocks.

“There’s big plays, which are 14- or 16-yard plays, and there’s catastrophic plays, which are your 60-, 70- or 80-yard plays,” said senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad.

“Eliminating those and cutting back on the big plays is something we’ve had a big focus on.”

In order to accomplish this goal, the Tar Heels will need to slow standout receiver Pharoh Cooper, who caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. He also rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns en route to earning first-team All-SEC honors.

And while Cooper and the Gamecocks serve as a challenge for a UNC defense looking to rebound, the Tar Heels are eager to see where they stand.

“This first game is kind of a measuring stick of where we are defensively,” Schoettmer said. “We’ve been going against our offense since spring and haven’t really faced a new opponent. It will be a good test for us.”

@patjames24sports@dailytarheel.com



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