Luke DeCock

Chizik under spotlight now, but UNC defense will be soon enough

North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik directs his defensive squad during the Tar Heels football practice on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik directs his defensive squad during the Tar Heels football practice on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Gene Chizik was in a place that has, over the years, been familiar to him but is quite rare for defensive coordinators: Behind a podium at media day.

That's where you find a starting quarterback. Or a head coach. If the defensive coordinator is there, he's in the back somewhere, answering questions about injured linebackers for their hometown papers.

For North Carolina's media day Wednesday, Chizik, the former Auburn and Iowa State head coach and new UNC defensive coordinator, was the first to the podium, ahead of Marquise Williams, ahead of Larry Fedora – no small measure of how much importance is being placed on Chizik's arrival.

He is the new guy in town with the solution to all the problems, except he isn't selling a marching band or a monorail. He's selling a defense that will, in theory, meet or exceed basic Division I standards. It doesn't sound like a tall order, except for the fact that North Carolina came nowhere close a year ago, finishing last in the ACC in total and scoring defense.

“They care. They want to improve,” Chizik said Wednesday of the players he inherited. “Nobody liked the results of last year any less than they do – nobody. No coaches, no media, no fans, nobody. They did not like the results, either.”

Enter Chizik, a national champion at Auburn even if it's been a decade since the held this job. The state of North Carolina's defense was so bad that Fedora was determined to get who he thought was the best man for the job, even if if meant bringing someone who crossed paths with the NCAA at Auburn – even if he was never implicated – onto a campus already neck-deep in NCAA troubles of its own.

The optics were never very good, so the results better be sensational.

Theories for why the North Carolina defense fell apart last season remain as numerous as the big plays it allowed and the tackles it missed. The inattention of departed defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his staff. Koenning's scheme itself. Poor chemistry. Bad fundamentals. A lack of talent, caused in part by the NCAA-imposed recruiting restrictions.

All of those are relatively easily remedied except for the latter. There's nothing Fedora and Chizik can do about that, at least not right away. If the deficiencies were mostly scheme-related, the potential for rapid improvement is manifest by ditching Koenning's 4-2-5 with “hybrid” positions like “bandit” and “ram” and going to what might be called “the kind of 4-3 that works in the SEC.”

But if the problem was merely that North Carolina's players on defense weren't very good, were too slow and too soft for ACC football, Chizik is merely going to be shuffling the same deck chairs as Koenning, at least until a few new recruiting classes arrive.

The training-camp emphasis on physicality and tackling may be as much testing as it is training: Are these players incapable of playing that way? Or were they never asked?

“I've never been around a good defense that's not physical,” Chizik said. “Ever. … Everybody's got to have a mentality of physicality. We point it out every day when it is. We point it out every day when it isn't. It either is or it isn't.”

North Carolina's defensive players spoke Wednesday of already believing that they were a better defense than a year ago, without any concrete evidence yet. And certainly, they mentioned specifics that indicate they're in a better place mentally, specifically an increased awareness of game situations and defensive concepts. But they won't really know until they take the field in Charlotte against South Carolina, and even then it may be too soon to see any real progress.

“We're excited for that stage,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “It's a big stage for us. All eyes are going to be on our defense because of how poorly we played last year. We know our offense can score points, but can our defense get stops?”

Chizik went first Wednesday, that rare moment a defensive coordinator steps into the spotlight. His defense will be in the spotlight on Sept. 3, when self-belief alone won't be enough

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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