After giving up an average of over 29 points per game in 2020, the North Carolina football team looks to have made some improvements on defense two games into the new season.
Since halftime of their season-opening loss against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels have only given up 20 points and two touchdowns.
In their first game back at a full-capacity Kenan Stadium since 2019, the defensive improvements were on full display in Saturday night's 59-17 win against Georgia State. In a game where things got out of hand midway through the third quarter, the Tar Heels were able to play a lot of their young talent while giving the veterans some rest.
With a tough matchup against Virginia looming this Saturday, head coach Mack Brown realizes the importance of starting to establish depth, and this game presented the perfect opportunity to do so.
“We’re getting more depth, so it may hurt us on some plays but we’re fresher in the third quarter than we used to be and that’s important”, Brown said. “Every snap that those young guys get, they’re going to start playing better and we won’t notice that they’re out there as much.”
Playing younger players typically comes with growing pains, but the only way they can get better is by spending time on the field.
The youth was noticeable on Saturday night, but it wasn’t for bad reasons. Numerous underclassmen were able to take advantage of the opportunity when they got on the field against the Panthers.
First-year linebacker Power Echols got the first interception of his career early in the fourth quarter and sophomore defensive lineman Myles Murphy got a sack and forced two tackles for loss. Fellow sophomores Desmond Evans and Ja'Qurious Conley also added tackles for losses.
“I felt like we did amazing tonight – the defense as a whole," Murphy said. “What we did tonight, I feel like we are just getting better as the season goes on. We just had to stop the run and play with more effort. Once we did that, they couldn’t do anything on us.”
Along with establishing more depth across the board, the Tar Heels have also been able to play their defensive lineman to their strengths this season.
With more players capable of contributing this year, UNC has created some opportunities upfront by placing their pass rushers and run stoppers in optimal situations. Senior Raymond Vohasek said he believes this will help give the defense an edge throughout the season.
“Different guys have different packages and different guys bring different skillsets,” Vohasek said. “So, I think that’s a really big thing that we can do on the defensive front this year and it will create some advantages for us.”
After losing a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball last season to the NFL draft, the Tar Heel defense needed to step up, and the unit has been producing thus far.
Through two games, the defense is only giving up an average of 17 points per game. If that trend continues, the unit will allow the team to stay in games until the offense takes time to gel.
The young group still has a long way to go until they reach their potential, but as the Tar Heels move into the early chunk of conference play, the pieces slowly seem to be moving closer together.