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The Daily Tar Heel

'We've got to be more aggressive': UNC football looks to mend defensive struggles

Senior linebacker Cedric Gray responds to a question from reporters at ACC Kickoff on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Early last season, a negative feeling arose around UNC football’s defense. 

The defense looked bad, and ultimately — it was. 

The Tar Heels gave up 61 points in a two-point win at Appalachian State in the second game of the season. They then allowed 45 points to Notre Dame in their first loss of the season three weeks later. From that point on, the defense’s struggles were well known. 

By the end of the year, the Tar Heels still ranked last in the ACC in defense. 

But as members of the team took to the podium at ACC Football Kickoff on July 27, senior linebacker and last season’s ACC leader in tackles, Cedric Gray, pushed back on those narratives.

“It definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth when people talk about our team and talk about how bad of a defense we've been sometimes,” Gray said. “Especially being the leader of a defense, I kind of take that personally.”

After giving up an average of 39.5 points in four non-conference games, the Tar Heels’ defense saw a drastic improvement in conference play, improving to 25.8 points allowed per game.

Gray also said he thought UNC was playing its best defense late last season. Despite the fact that the Tar Heels lost their last four games of the season, there seems to be a belief that they can build off the positive foundation from the end of last season.

“I think we've done a lot of different things this offseason to improve,” Gray said. “I think, first and foremost, our (defensive line) has improved tremendously. I think we've added some new wrinkles to the pass rush game.”

UNC ranked last in the ACC in passing defense and bottom three in rushing defense. But according to head coach Mack Brown, improving the defense all starts with stopping the run.

“We've got to be more aggressive up front and stop the run more on first down,” Brown said. 

He added that it will be easier for UNC to improve its passing defense once it can contain the rush, and the Tar Heels will have ample opportunity to show off their rushing defense in the first four games of the season.

“We've got a really tough schedule to start the season with some very physical teams,” Brown said. “South Carolina is going to run the ball. App State will run the ball, Minnesota will run the ball and Pitt will run the ball. It will be a great four games to start out to see if we've improved like we think we have on defense.”

With Gene Chizik, the assistant head coach for defense, back for his second year in Chapel Hill, Gray said the Tar Heels should begin to look more comfortable in their defensive system this season.

With potential Heisman award candidate Drake Maye at the helm of the offense once again, the Tar Heels should have few worries putting points on the board. That’s why a lot of the pressure is on the shoulders of the defense. UNC may win as many games as its defense allows it to. 

But there is an understanding that the rushing defense needs to improve, and there’s a mindset within these Tar Heels to be physical and get better.

“You just have to be a savage,” tight end John Copenhaver said. “You really have to stick your nose in there and be able to be physical and take hits and give hits.”


@dthsports |

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