The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 7th

Defense finally shows up in UNC football's blowout win over Virginia Tech

UNC junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) returns an intercepted pass during a home football game at Kenan Stadium against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. UNC won 41-10.
Buy Photos UNC junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) returns an intercepted pass during a home football game at Kenan Stadium against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. UNC won 41-10.

On his way out of the press room, North Carolina football head coach Mack Brown stopped to clap Cedric Gray on the shoulder.

The junior linebacker had a team-high eight tackles and an interception in Saturday’s 41-10 victory over Virginia Tech. All afternoon, Gray had spearheaded a suffocating defensive performance unlike anything seen in previous games, holding Virginia Tech to just 273 yards and keeping the Hokies scoreless in the second half.

But despite Gray's dominant performance on the field, Brown took time to acknowledge a different shift in the linebacker's game.

“You’ve graduated from cheerleader to linebacker,” he joked.

Four weeks ago, Gray intercepted a play-action pass against Appalachian State, and then — to Brown’s ire — proceeded to celebrate zealously with fans.

But on Saturday, when the linebacker picked off Virginia Tech's Grant Wells to give the Tar Heels strong field position before adding another score, Gray promptly returned to the bench before he could warrant another glare from his head coach.

“I can’t stand immaturity,” Brown said. “Don’t run over and be a cheerleader, that’s not your job. Do your job.”

It’s a simple yet effective mentality shift that was evident in UNC’s defense on every snap — do your job and don’t get comfortable. 

With the game essentially over in the fourth quarter, both teams benched their starters, allowing UNC first-year linebacker Randy "Deuce" Caldwell to shine with an 8-yard sack. Caldwell tromped over the fallen quarterback, then sprang into a crane pose — only to be quickly rebuked by his teammates.

“Deuce Caldwell made his first play of his life and he did a dance, or whatever that was,” Brown said. “And three kids got to him before I could even chew him out.”

According to Gray, increased accountability among the defense was sparked by discontent with past performances. After last week’s 45-32 loss to Notre Dame, the defense held a players-only meeting to talk things over, where players said tensions were high.

“We had a whole mood shift this week,” Gray said. “We were very upset at the product that we put on the field last week. There was definitely some pent-up frustration that we were ready to let out.”

However, instead of arguing with each other, players were on the same page. A few extra film sessions gave them time to analyze blown coverages and clarify assignments, and on Saturday, the defense looked like a completely different unit.

“We really locked in on what our responsibilities were,” junior defensive linemen Kaimon Rucker said. “Everybody did their eleventh.”

The Tar Heels' defense is still far from a finished product. After shutting down Virginia Tech, UNC still ranks worst in the ACC with 450.8 yards allowed per game — one of many statistics that will motivate Rucker, Gray and the rest to play even harder.

“When you feel like you’re better than what’s given on paper, you definitely have frustration that builds up,” Rucker said. “Football is one of those games where it’s legal to hurt somebody. If you want to take your anger out, go ahead and take it on the opposing player.”

After surrendering a 40-point fourth quarter in Boone and 25 unanswered points to Georgia State, grappling with complacency had begun to cement itself as a theme in North Carolina that carried over from last season. Each train wreck of a defensive performance required elite play from UNC’s offense just to keep the team afloat.

So given Saturday’s near-perfect defensive display, it’s safe to say that the renewed mindset is a step in the right direction.

“If we do this consistently throughout the entirety of the season, we got a special plan coming,” Rucker said.

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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