Tar Heels aim to stop run, continue defensive turn
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) While North Carolina's record-setting offense commanded headlines, the Tar Heels' defensive improvement from awful to merely adequate was a key factor in matching a school record with 11 wins.
For defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the next step for that unit is obvious entering the opener against Georgia and beyond.
''We have to get better at stopping the run,'' Chizik said, ''and we know that.''
It's easily the biggest focus for the Tar Heels' defense in training camp. They ended last year by giving up nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in their last two games against high-powered offenses, and finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference against the run.
''It was not a recurring thing of any sort,'' Chizik said. ''Sometimes it was (game) situation. Sometimes it might have been a missed tackle. Sometimes it might have been a guy that wasn't placed correctly in his gap. I think those are all the kind of scenarios you would encounter when you're not playing the run as well as you'd want to.''
After building elite defenses at Texas and Auburn before winning a national title as the Tigers' head coach, Chizik added another line to his resume in his first year in Chapel Hill just by getting the Tar Heels to stop giving up big plays all over the field.
North Carolina surrendered more points and yards than any team in school history in 2014, allowing 497.8 yards and 39 points per game while also surrendering 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards. Chizik's overhaul cut those numbers to 24.5 points and 435.9 yards with just five 40-yard touchdowns for a bend-but-don't-break unit.
The biggest improvement came against the pass, where the Tar Heels ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense, while the rush defense finished 121st nationally by allowing 247.4 yards per game.
Those numbers were skewed by the final two games, first when then-No. 1 Clemson ran for 319 yards in a 45-37 win. Then Baylor ran for 645 yards - the most ever allowed by UNC - and seven scores in a 49-38 win in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Tar Heels had allowed about 198 yards in their eight ACC regular-season contests.
''We played at a good level, but we have to step it up and play great,'' linebacker Andre Smith said. ''So we can't just keep settling for that but we have to raise the bar.''
Chizik pointed to other factors, too, such as time-and-score situations that sometimes had UNC playing conservatively while protecting big leads. Of note: Miami ran for 91 of its 99 yards after falling behind 45-0 in the third quarter, while rival North Carolina State ran for 265 of its 308 yards after UNC rolled to a 35-7 first-quarter lead.
The Tar Heels will get an immediate indication of whether they've improved in 2016. They'll face star Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb in his return from a knee injury in the Sept. 3 opener in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
''If they can get 80 yards down the field and can't score, it's not a big deal to us,'' cornerback Des Lawrence said of stopping the run this season. ''The yards are what the media is interested in. We don't really care about that.''
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