Baylor ran down UNC’s throat 84 times, amassing 645 rushing yards on 7.7 yards per carry. The Tar Heel defense also allowed the Bears to score seven rushing touchdowns.
UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said he watched that Baylor game eight or nine times this offseason. Junior linebacker Cayson Collins said that game, and memories of the poor run defense, stayed with the team all summer.
“We’ve still kind of had that taste in our mouth,” Collins said. “The coaching staff still, we’ve talked about that (Baylor game), and they’ve said that’s something that haunts them every day.”
Junior safety Donnie Miles watched some of the game tape from last season before training camp, and he said it made him sick.
“I needed to see that (Baylor game) and the Clemson game,” Miles said. “I looked at it and broke it down and (have) seen where I could have been better, how I could have made plays for my team to prevent some of the things that happened when things broke down.”
Much of North Carolina’s run defense does fall on Miles when things break down. From the safety position, he makes the tackle when the running back gets past the defensive line and linebackers. That happened all too often last season, as Miles led the team in tackles with 128. Only two were tackles for loss.
This offseason, the Tar Heels lost their next two leading tacklers from 2015 — linebackers Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer — to graduation. In to replace them are Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb, along with returning starter Collins.
One of the main priorities for the new linebacking core is cutting down on leaky yardage — what Chizik defines as yards the opposing running backs get after contact. Finishing tackles could save two or three yards per run, and that adds up over the course of a game.
The defense will also have a new look up front. Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton are the Tar Heels’ new pair of defensive tackles. It’s the line’s job in the run defense to occupy blocks, draw double teams and create open lanes for linebackers to shoot through. Jones draws double teams, and the Tar Heels hope pairing him inside with a dynamic athlete like Dalton will create problems for opposing offensive lines.
Dalton spoke at length during camp about the “deeper knowledge” he and the other defenders have acquired. In year two under Chizik, players are starting to grasp the 4-3 defense.
“It’s mainly the same plays,” Dalton said. “It’s just each player knows — I know for the defensive line, we know what the linebackers are doing on plays, and we know what the safeties and cornerbacks are doing because we are all tighter together.”
The revamped run defense has a tough road ahead. The schedule offers no respite, with Georgia, Pittsburgh and Florida State coming in the first five games of the season. North Carolina is hoping a deeper understanding of the whys behind the defense, coupled with an infusion of new talent, will make a difference in 2016.