Among the 27 players on UNC’s football defensive depth chart for last Saturday’s game at Appalachian State were 13 players rated as four- or five-star prospects coming out of high school, according to 247Sports.com, and seven were ranked among the top 10 in the nation in their positions
With that kind of talent, how did the Tar Heels manage to give up 61 points, including 40 in the fourth quarter, and more than 600 total yards against the Mountaineers? It’s a question many have been asking after the 63-61 win at Boone.
In the fourth quarter alone, North Carolina gave up six touchdowns, 18 first downs and 338 total yards as Appalachian State rallied from a 20-point deficit and had a chance to take the lead. The near collapse left the defensive staff searching for answers this week as UNC prepares to play Georgia State (0-1) on Saturday in Atlanta (noon, ESPNU).
“They (defensive staff) are embarrassed,” UNC head coach Mack Brown said. “They are disappointed. We’re not playing as well as we should, we’re not playing as well as we thought we would, and we’ve got to fix it.
“This is not like an arson investigation where the starting point can be directly identified. The issues are extensive and broader than that.”
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The change has undoubtedly impacted the Tar Heel defense. Four starters completed their eligibility after the 2021 season, including No. 2 tackler and defensive leader Jeremiah Gemmel at linebacker. UNC is also missing two other potential returning starters in Ja’Qurious Conley and Tomari Fox. Conley started at safety last season before suffering a knee injury from which he is still recovering. Fox would have been one of the team’s best pass-rushers, but the NCAA declared him ineligible for the season for ingesting a banned substance.
Add the arrival of new defensive co-coordinators in Gene Chizik and Charlton Warren, plus UNC’s youthful appearance on that side of the ball: 13 true freshmen, freshmen and sophomores are on the chart. deep, and has a recipe for fights.
Chizik was so disappointed in his fourth-quarter performance against Appalachian State that he watched the game twice on the bus back to Chapel Hill and once before he went to bed.
“Obviously it was a performance that we wish hadn’t happened in the fourth quarter,” Chizik said this week. “There’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot of teaching (to be done). We have to tackle better. I feel like we missed a lot of tackles that we shouldn’t have done, and that was pretty apparent for most of the game. I think we can improve on that.”
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However, the biggest worry after the Appalachian State game for Chizik was the high school game. Despite being one of the most experienced areas of the defense with four seniors and two juniors on the depth chart, the secondary was consistently beaten or out of position to make plays against the Mountaineers.
“Usually when you’re in media coverage, if you lose the battle, it’s the first five yards or the last five yards or both,” Chizik said. Generally, that’s when we’re in media coverage, we have to win at the line of scrimmage. That is the beginning.
“So the first five yards are always important and sometimes our technique wasn’t as good as it needed to be so we lost at the line of scrimmage and usually when that happens you’re trying to catch up. ”.
Fortunately, UNC has time to correct its defensive woes with a non-conference game at Georgia State on Saturday followed by an open date before Notre Dame arrives in Chapel Hill on Sept. 24.
“We’re just going to go back to the drawing board, look at the mistakes we made and fix them,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “That’s all you can really do. We made all those mistakes and we came away with the win. That should say a lot about how good we can be if we don’t make those same kinds of mistakes.
“We know we have the talent.”