Josh Cabrera caught the pass a few steps behind the line of scrimmage. The rising redshirt junior wide receiver started running, headed for Fetzer Field’s left sideline during North Carolina’s spring game. His blockers had held, so there was an opening.
Donnie Miles met him there.
Miles, a rising redshirt senior safety, could have just forced Cabrera out of bounds with a push. Or he could have gone for the legs, like most 5-foot-11 defensive backs would do when tackling a 6-foot-3 wideout in an exhibition game.
There’s a problem with that mindset, though. It’s the exact opposite of what Miles — and UNC’s entire defense, for that matter — wants to do.
“You can’t say, ‘I want to be a big hitter, I want to be physical,’ and not live it,” Miles said. “You’ve got to do that every day.”
Miles sped up as the distance between him and his teammate shrank. Then there was a collision. A resounding crack of pads — the type of sound that would have a retired 1980s linebacker reminiscing about his glory days.
The hit stopped Cabrera in his tracks and sent him to the ground. Miles bumped helmets with his teammates. The fans let out a collective gasp.
“It was great to see,” rising junior linebacker Andre Smith said. “You have to practice how you’re going to play in a real-life game.”
Miles’ play might have been the highlight, but his defensive teammates were playing the exact same way. They weren’t going to let this be a shootout. To these Tar Heels, the spring game was as real as North Carolina’s season opener against California in September.
“The defense did some great things,” Miles said. “I think we made a big leap.”
Defensive back K.J. Sails jawed with wide receivers. Safety Jaye Stackhouse strutted around after punishing a back on a run up the middle. When defensive end Dajaun Drennon couldn’t corral an interception off his own deflection, he slapped his hands against his helmet.
The defense didn’t force any turnovers, but its impact was still visible on the stat sheet. North Carolina had six sacks, three of which belonged to Drennon. The Tar Heels broke up nine passes and swarmed the ball constantly.
“If you draw it up on paper, someone’s always designed to make the tackle,” Smith said. “But as a defense, we all have to get off our blocks and get to the ball ... We shouldn’t have just one man making the tackle.”
It was John Papuchis’ first test, and the former linebackers coach turned defensive coordinator passed it. He stuck with the same formations and concepts Gene Chizik left behind, and it showed.
“It’s not like we’re running anything new,” Drennon said. “Everything’s still the same — it’s just under a new name. Everybody feels comfortable right now.”
At the end of the game, the scoreboard read 80-70 in favor of the defense. That score and the statistics from the game will fade, but the intensity and hits will be fresh in UNC’s memory.
“All that does is make our offense better,” Smith said. “I love seeing it.”
Saturday was more than just a dress rehearsal. It was a statement.