Tar Heels aim to build on defensive turnaround from 2015

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) A year ago, North Carolina's defense was just trying to get down the basics of Gene Chizik's scheme coming out of spring drills.

The Tar Heels sound like they have a better grasp on a thicker playbook this time around.

''If you go all the way back to the spring of last year, we put in nothing but base and didn't do anything else,'' head coach Larry Fedora said after Saturday's spring game. ''And that's all they did for 15 days. This year because of where we left off, these guys were able to expand everything and get into 7-man fronts, 8-man fronts, different blitz packages, a lot of things we weren't able to do with last year's team.

''So we were just able to elevate it to another level for those guys as far as what was put in. And then they come out of the spring with a better understanding of all of it.''

UNC's go-go-go offense puts up big numbers and grabs all the headlines, especially during last year's 11-win season that stood as the program's best in nearly two decades. But it's the play of the defense that could determine whether the Tar Heels can become the first team to repeat as Coastal Division champion in the Atlantic Coast Conference since Virginia Tech did it in 2010-11.

In the first season under Chizik as coordinator, UNC went from surrendering program records of 6,472 yards (497.8) and 507 points (39 per game) to allowing 20.8 points and 394.9 yards in last year's 12-game regular season before giving up some big numbers - 94 points and 1,364 yards, to be exact - in the ACC title game loss to No. 1 Clemson and in the Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Baylor.

This year's Tar Heels also have a huge hole in the heart of their defense after losing senior linebackers Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer.

''We held our own against the teams that we played throughout the regular season but when we went up to teams that were the No. 1 in the nation . that required us to play at a higher level,'' linebacker Cayson Collins said. ''Chizik wants us to play at that level every time. That experience definitely taught us a lot. It's something we're going to take going forward.''

The Tar Heels had several young players getting key reps during the spring, including January enrollees Jonathan Smith at linebacker, and defensive backs Myles Wolfolk and Myles Dorn. That trio combined for 14 tackles during Saturday's spring game that put the offense and defense against each other in a scoring system based on points awarded on outcomes for each play. The offense won 74-70, but the defense allowed three touchdowns - only one TD toss by likely starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky - while grabbing four interceptions.

It was a good way to finish spring, and it puts the Tar Heels miles ahead of where they were entering fall camp last year.

''Last year we were much more vanilla - we were only able to come out of here with two calls,'' rising senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. ''They just wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing. This year we were able to put in a lot of things and I feel like everybody knows where the next man is going to be so it allows them to play faster.''

---

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.