'Nole Your Enemy: The Huge North Carolina Tar Heel Defense

We continue our " 'Nole Your Enemy" Series with The North Carolina Tar Heels, who the 'Noles will play on a possibly Cold Thursday Night, October 22nd.  Making this game even tougher is North Carolina's schedule (the Heels play Virginia and Georgia Southern before they host the 'Noles, which is basically two bye weeks).  Thursday night games tip overwhelmingly in favor of the home team.   We started with South Florida (OffenseDefense) and continued with BYU's Offense and Defense.   Last week we previewed BC's Offense and the Boston College Defense, and yesterday we looked at UNC's Offense.  If you're a fan of one of these teams, please remember that this preview of your team is from the perspective of an FSU fan.  If we don't show your team respect, it's probably backed up by their performance or personnel losses.  We welcome your thoughts. 

Carolina's defense of a year ago is tough to analyze.  What conclusions can you draw from their performance? 


Inside, we''ll try to break this down, discuss what UNC has coming back, their scheme, how the 'Noles will attack that scheme, and how UNC will counter.

In Diagram A, We see that only North Carolina State gave up more total yards per game than UNC.  So by that measure, they weren't very good at all. 

In Diagram B, we see Brian Fremeau's FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index) Opponent Adjusted Defense Measure.  That's drive-based, and doesn't measure plays that happen in garbage time (which I like, because I don't care how the defense did when it was up by 24 points in the 4th quarter).  I put a lot of weight into this measure, and while it calls the 'Heels only the 4th best defense in the conference, you have to remember that Boston College, Wake Forest, and Clemson all had Nationally Elite defenses as well.  So by this measure, they were very good.  Also, this measure takes into account where the offense starts with the ball (if the offense starts on the defense's 10, it's pretty good to hold to a field goal).

In Diagram C and D, we see Bill Connelley's excellent S&P+ measure, which is the other premier metric for gauging performance.  This indicates that UNC was a middle of the conference defense. 

So which one do I trust?  I discard A, because it doesn't account for how many plays UNC's defense faced, what position the offense put the defense in, or exclude stats from garbage time.  So I'll say that UNC's defense was somewhere between B and C/D, which is to say that it was definitely in the top 25 nationally, but probably not top 10. 

UNC runs a very conservative scheme under DC Everette Withers, though HC Butch Davis' fingerprints are all over this unit.  You'll see lots of two-deep coverage.  The corners play a mix of man and zone, and they never press/ play tight without help over the top.  They run a 4-3 look that is mostly gap control and they are huge.  


Defensive Line

The 'Heels are absolutely loaded on the defensive line, which has been a trademark of Butch Davis teams from his days at Miami (both times), to his stint with the Dallas Cowboys, etc.  His defensive line coach is the highly regarded Jon Blake.  They return every starter and backup, and are very very talented.  This will be one of the toughest challenges the Florida State line will face this year.  Let's run through the group.

At Defensive Tackle, the Tar heels have a pair of absolute studs in 6'4" 325lb Senior Cam Thomas, and 6'3" 300lb Junior Marvin Austin.  Thomas is the space eater, and he'll play in the NFL because he has a low center of gravity.  He's a load and Florida State's All-Conference Center Ryan McMahon must be able to stymie him.  Often times Thomas draws a double team, and that allows Austin, arguably the most talented defensive tackle in the conference and a likely 1st round draft choice to work against a single blocker.  Austin is explosive to be sure, but needs to have a more consistent motor.  I have no doubt he'll be up against the 'Noles and Austin is a serious candidate for ALL-ACC Consideration.  FSU's All-America Guard Rodney Hudson against Marvin Austin will be a great battle to watch.  So UNC has two NFL defensive tackles, one of whom is a serious 1st round talent.  They also have Senior Aleric Mullins (6'3" 305) and Sophomore Tydreke Powell (6'3" 305), both of whom will log 10-15 snaps per game.  It's safe to say UNC is loaded at defensive tackle.  

At defensive end, UNC is similarly huge, though less proven.  At Strongside End, the 'Heels have 6'2" 280lb Senior E.J. Wilson.  He's their "edge" player, setting the edge and turning the play back toward the pursuit.  He'll have to hold off 6'6" 260lb Quintin Coples, who was an all-world recruit.  Coples is very raw, but he is unquestionably talented and has 1st round draft choice written all over him if he can put it together.  At Weakside End, the Tar Heels have a really great story.  6'5" 260lb Sophomore Robert Quinn overcame brain cancer to have a great season last year and his stock is rising every day. 

So this group is huge and talented.  They played the run very well last year, but they were not good at getting sacks.  I don't care about sacks, but I do care about getting pressure on the QB.  The Tar Heels weren't very good at doing that, and they have to improve on that this season, because their defensive coordinator is not a blitz guy.  The starting defensive line generated only 5.5 sacks last year.  That's extremely low, and they have to improve the pressure.  I have every reason to expect that they will, considering everyone is back and in their 3rd year in the program.  This line will throw fresh talented bodies at the offense on almost every down.  Football fans and NFL scouts will be focused on the line of scrimmage in this one, and I honestly don't know who will this battle of well coached talent.



While not quite the group that the defensive line is, UNC's linebackers are top notch.  They did lose Excellent Middle Linebacker Mark Paschal, who some feel was merely good, not great, and benefited from the excellent play of the defensive tackles in front of him.  To cover for him, 6'2" 235lb Junior Quan Sturdivant will shift from Weakside backer to the middle spot.  Look for his numbers to explode as he will be protected from blockers by the defensive tackle duo in front of him.  Heck, Paschal led the nation in tackles last season, and everyone thinks Paschal is better.  He's similar to London Fletcher in that he's has excellent side to side range.  He's going to be an ALL-ACC Player and is currently projected as a 2nd round draft choice, listed as the 3rd best outside linebacker in the country.  

At Strongside Linebacker is Bruce Carter, a great athlete with improving instincts (he was a quarterback in high school).  He's 6'3" 230 and is very good in pass coverage (watching these UNC linebackers, they are all good in pass coverage).  He's another guy who is a lock to be a 1st day selection (1st 3 rounds), with the potential to be a late first or early second rounder.  Butch Davis is great at recruiting defensive talent, as he did at Miami, and I definitely see his imprint on these linebackers.  Carter also has a legit shot to be ALL-ACC. 

The only questions at linebacker are at the weakside linebacker spot, and depth.  Zach Brown is an undersized (6'2" 220') sophomore who is very raw. I don't know enough about him or the backups, other than to say that they are really inexperienced.  If Carter or Sturdivant go down, I would expect a big dropoff in production.   

Front-7 Size

While UNC isn't afraid to bring the safety down into the box to stop the run, playing cover-1 or cover-3, they would prefer not to do that, and they rarely have to. And one way they are enable to accomplish this (stopping the run with 7 and not 8 men), is with great size. 

We've done a lot of work on this, and you can read out 3-part series "Does Size Matter" here:  Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Here's what you need to know, there were 6 defenses that had a combined front-7 size of more than 1860lbs:  Alabama, South Carolina, Boston College, Wake Forest, Southern Cal, and... North Carolina.  All of those defenses were elite, all have numerous highly regarded NFL prospects, and all forced a lot of turnovers by stopping the run with their size and forcing teams into 2nd and 8+/ 3rd and 5+ situations.  UNC checked in at 1865lbs.  A defense that size is just hard to move out of the way and they don't need the extra run defender in the form of a safety.  When your focus as a safety is on the pass and stopping the run is an afterthought, you will play well against the pass.  There is a much more detailed explanation in the linked article above. 

This year, their front-7 should be among the biggest in the country again, weighing in at 1860lbs.  How does that rate against other defensive fronts FSU played last year?  

There are two ways to stop FSU's running game and not get burned by the bubble screen (a pass FSU throws exceptionally well)  Essentially, the bubble screen is a tool to make sure that the deffense plays 7 in the box and not 8.  If the defense cheats and brings extra men against the run, we throw the bubble to keep them honest. : 

  1. The first is to have a huge, disciplined front 7, that is difficult to cut block.  One that takes good angles and doesn't allow cutbacks.  This allows teams to play straight upon the receivers, also maintaining deep coverage.  Or...
  2. Play 8 in the box and play zero coverage-press man against each receiver.  Virginia Tech did this and they were eventually burned deep.  This requires excellent athletes in the secondary, and nobody on FSU's schedule should expect their cornerbacks to cover FSU's 4 and 5* receivers without safety help.

As we'll see in a second, UNC does not have the option to play number two.  They have to hope their front-7 can stop the run.  What did other front 7's do against FSU's run game?

Wake 1838lbs, 27 rushes for 103 yards.  Wake was very big.They were able to play the bubble straight up, which worked very well.  They also had 4 seniors on defense drafted in the first 4 rounds.

Florida 1835lbs, 29 rushes for 137  Big and supremely talented, our rushing success came primarily in garbage time.

Miami 1785lbs, 54 rushes, 281 yards.  There is a pretty big drop off from UF to Miami (55lbs).  Remember here that our rushing success came primarily on reverses and Ponder running, most of which was a result of Miami's idiotic plan to defense our attack.  We bubbled them to death when they went 8 or 9 in the box.

Georgia Tech 1772lbs (I think they were lighter because of major injuries, correct?).  31 rushes, 228 yards.  Remember that GTech was missing 2 key linebackers and a safety.  Still, this is a big drop in weight from the 3 schools over 1835lbs.

Virginia Tech 1766lbs, 34 rushes, 123 yards.  Poor numbers.  Explanation?  Yes.  VT played 8 in the box and manned up on the wide receivers.  If you're puzzled, remember what happened:  the only thing open was the deep ball.  They saturated the running lanes and pressed FSU's wideouts. Eventually, FSU burned them deep.

Clemson 1760lbs, 34 rushes, 281 yards  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

NC State 1757lbs, 42 rushes, 162 yards  These numbers aren't amazing, but much of this game was us trying to control the clock while battling holding penalties.  They also include lost sack yardage (which isn't a run play).  Light front 7?  Check.  Depending solely on speed to stop the run?  Check.  Cutbacks?  Check.

Maryland 1755lbs, 41 rushes, 172 yards  Maryland struggled all game in choosing to defend the bubble or the run.

Colorado 1755lbs, 45 rushes, 259 yards  The smallest front we played AND they decided to stop the bubble.  Running wild was the obvious result.

UNC has one of the biggest fronts in the country and will obviously be one of the best fronts FSU faces.  Every offensive linemen is back for FSU, and three are All-America candidates (even if 'Nole fans know their center is overrated).  The 'Nole line is extremely quick and very intelligent.  They are much bigger and stronger this year, as last year they were the youngest offensive line in the country.  They will not try to blow UNC's line off the ball, but rather turn them and gash them.  Still, this will be no easy task and quite the battle, as UNC was quite good against the run last year:



And while stopping the run is definitely important and factors heavily into stopping the pass because of the situations it creates, a team still has to actually stop the pass, and despite their high interception totals, they were not a great pass defense team.  They are above average, which in the ACC, wasn't all that special. 



The Secondary

As I said, these guys had a bunch of interceptions last year (top 10 nationally), but are they really that good?  I don't think so.  None are high up on draft lists despite being draft eligible, and they definitely benefit from the scheme and an excellent front-7. 

At the corner position, they have 5'9" Kendric Burney, who is a good college corner with quick hips who had 13 pass breakups last season.  At the other corner they feature 5'10" Senior Jordan Hembry, who played well last year, and Junior 5'10" Charles Brown, who was All-ACC in 2007 but got banged up last year and lost his job to Hembry.  I don't think these corners are all that special, and FSU fans hope they can match up 6'3" 232lb Super-Recruit Jarmon Fortson with Burney, as Fortson has a considerable size advantage along with his freakish athleticism. 

At Safety, UNC is lamenting the loss of Tramane Goddard, their 2nd Team All-American Safety.  He was a good college player, but he was an ALL-AMERICAN because of his interceptions, which is often a poor way to judge a player, particularly a safety.  In any case, he wasn't drafted and I think they overestimate his loss.  Replacing him at strong safety will be Da'Norris Searcy, a 6'0" 200' Junior who UNC fans are pretty high on.  I'm not sure of his cover skills, and as we discussed infra, he will be asked to cover more than support the run.  He's definitely the better athlete than Goddard was, but he doesn't have the instincts yet apparently.  At Free Safety, they have Deunta Williams.  I like Williams, he's now a Junior and won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007.  He's their best secondary player from what I have seen (though they will tell you it's Burney).  Christian Ponder will need to look him off, particularly when throwing plays designed to split their cover-2. 

For more on UNC's secondary, check this article out:  UNC Butch Davis Coverage Schemes


I don't want to make this defense seem unbeatable.  They are not, but they are very good.  But they are at home, at night, on a Thursday, behind a sellout crowd, and will be well rested after playing two joke programs before this game.  The 'Noles offense will probably see more 2nd and 8+/ 3rd and 5+ situations than they like, and I suspect it will take a broken tackle or two leading to a big play for the 'Noles to get the win.  Methodically marching the ball on this defense isn't an option.  Expect FSU to spread them out and make them account for all 11 offensive players by running the quarterback, and make no mistake about it, FSU will need to throw the ball to win.  That's difficult to do in 2nd/3rd and long, so I expect FSU to throw the ball early, ala Bill Walsh.  I do think UNC can be beaten by throwing on early downs.  We saw Notre Dame do that to them, as well as NC State.  The real key is to get their big guys to play in space in situations where they do not know they will be playing in space (aka not in 2nd and 3rd and long!).


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