As Larry Fedora enters his fourth season as Head Coach at North Carolina, demands for a better product on the field has forced him to overhaul his entire defensive coaching staff. The offense has seldom been in question since his arrival, and with a majority of its weapons returning, is almost certain to be a force. Will this be the year that improved defensive play propels the Tar Heels to a Coastal Division title?
In 2014, North Carolina's defense surrendered 70 points to East Carolina and had 34 missed tackles in a 31-24 victory over San Diego State, finishing the year ranked 117th in total defense. But even more so, their crushing 35-7 defeat at the hands of in-state rival N.C. State triggered such significant change.
However, these issues didn't doom the Tar Heels, well, at least not yet. With the competitive nature of the division, the Coastal Division crown is never too far from reach. At the start of conference play, momentum was building for North Carolina. Larry Fedora's squad nearly upended the Irish in South Bend, ushering in a newfound determination. Seizing this momentum, North Carolina bested conference foes Virginia and Georgia Tech, reaching new heights on the year. At this moment in time, they took the spotlight as the top contenders in the Coastal Division, but as history shows, things did not pan out in their favor.
Then, unbeknownst to North Carolin (and us all, really), they were to face the Hurricanes at their peak. In the weeks before, Miami lit up the scoreboard against Cincinnati and trounced the Hokies in Blacksburg. During this impressive stretch of play, the Canes' defense was in a frenzy, allowing just 262 total yards at Virginia Tech and 258 total yards against North Carolina. As Brad Kaaya and Duke Johnson kept the offense moving against the Tar Heels, blood was in the water and the sharks were circling. Tyriq McCord would have one of his better games as a Hurricane, finishing with three tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Read State of the U's full UNC-Miami recap here.
"McCord came out on to the field for the second half with bad intentions. Having told leading tackler and top NFL prospect, Denzel Perryman, in the locker room at halftime to "match his intensity" per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. McCord was fast, relentless and aggressive, making plays all over the field all day long, but as I watched from the stands one series stood out in particular. Midway through the third quarter, with the Carolina offense mounting their first effective drive, junior defensive end McCord took over. On first down from the Miami 37, McCord and Calvin Heurtelou dropped Marquise Williams, Carolina's leading rusher for a half yard gain on a QB keeper. After a penalty, Williams second down pass sailed incomplete, setting the Heels up for a huge 3rd and 14. From his standup defensive end position, McCord used a speed rush and blazed past his man almost untouched to blindside Williams for an 8-yard loss and force yet another punt. Effectively ending any hopes Carolina had of scoring on what started out as a promising drive for the Tar Heels. The ensuing snap flew high over the punter's head and hustling downfield for the recovery at the Carolina 12 yard line, you guessed it, Tyriq McCord. Three plays later true freshman running back, Joe Yearby had his first collegiate score and though they fought hard, Carolina would never recover from being down 44-6." - State of the U
What's changed? The entire defensive coaching staff and not much else.
What has fans and ACC pundits excited for North Carolina in 2015 is the number of players returning. The Tar Heels return dual-threat QB Marquise Williams, every running back, and last year's top four wide receivers, including their main target and return man Ryan Switzer. While the defense has more notable departures, it returns the majority of its starters, giving Gene Chizik and staff valuable experience and depth to work with in his first year.
Larry Fedora hit the ground running when he lured Gene Chizik back into coaching ($750K per year is pretty damn enticing), but he didn't stop there. Fedora tabbed former Nebraska assistants John Papuchis and Charlton Warren, as linebackers coach and defensive backs coach, respectively, and UT-Martin defensive line coach Tray Scott. On paper this new staff is an upgrade from the last, however, whether they'll have enough time to right the ship is in question. Fedora has taken the right steps to correcting North Carolina's defensive issues, but pressure continues to mount, and another dismal year may be his last.
What's to be expected?
Was last year's outcome an abnormality or did the Hurricanes defense simply match up better with North Carolina's offense?
Traditionally, games between these two schools result in a much smaller margin of victory. While the offense had its way, it was the Miami defense that dominated and kept the Tar Heels at bay in 2014. The Hurricanes defensive success can be attributed to its matchups. North Carolina runs a spread offense with its most efficient runner being quarterback Marquise Williams, and in 2014 their wideouts posed little threat for the deep ball. The lack of an established ground game and big play receivers was to the Hurricanes advantage. This allowed Miami to focus its efforts on outside blitzes, disrupting the short to medium-range passing game, and eyeing the quarterback, much like it did against Duke earlier in the year. If Miami's speed can thwart Marquise Williams' ability to run and stretch plays, the cards are in the 'Canes favor.
Both offenses stand ready for the challenge, but as each team looks to shore up its defense, it's likely the better defenders of the two will prevail.
- In a series that dates back to 1946, the Hurricanes hold a slim margin at *9-7 (depending on who's counting). *Miami's losses to North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 have been vacated by the NCAA. So if we're not forcefully forgetting history, the series is knotted up at nine games apiece.
- Miami currently holds a two-game win streak over the Tar Heels.
- Since arriving in Coral Gables, Al Golden is 3-1 against the Tar Heels, winning in both trips to Chapel Hill.
- The Hurricanes are *6-5 against the Tar Heels since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. *Miami's losses to North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 have been vacated by the NCAA, but ARE included in this record.
- Miami plays UNC on November 14th at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., time to be announced.