North Carolina made one of the most intriguing hires of the offseason when it brought back Gene Chizik to run its defense.

Chizik, who replaces Jay Bateman, was North Carolina’s defensive coordinator from 2015-16. The results from his first stint in Chapel Hill were often better than what the Tar Heels have had from his successors — John Papuchis and Bateman. 

Does that bode well for North Carolina’s defense in 2022 and beyond?

The answer is a bit complicated. Let’s break it down: 

The strengths

Let’s start with the positives. Chizik’s first era at UNC was relatively successful on a yards-per-play basis. Chizik’s defenses gave up 5.44 yards per play over his two seasons in Chapel Hill, was is a notably better mark than John Papuchis (5.91) or Jay Bateman (5.78). 

The primary reason for Chizik’s success was a stingy passing defense. The Tar Heels posted a passer rating allowed of just 116.94 over his two seasons, which — again — dwarfs what Papuchis (131.73) and Bateman (134.46) conceded. 

Chizik’s passing defense was especially good in 2015. The Tar Heels picked off opposing quarterbacks 17 times and broke up 61 other passes. UNC’s passer rating allowed of 109.78 in 2015 ranked No. 12 nationally. 

Overall, North Carolina’s defense was respected for its efficiency from 2015-16. The Tar Heels finished Chizik’s two seasons with defensive SP+ rankings of No. 51 and No. 48. Only UNC’s 2019 season (No. 44) produced a higher efficiency since Chizik left Chapel Hill. Papuchis (No. 95 in 2018) and Bateman (No. 101 in 2021) both had campaigns outside the top-90 in defensive SP+.

The weaknesses

However, it’s not all good news. Chizik’s rushing defense wasn’t listed as a strength, because it wasn’t one. His defenses allowed 4.8 yards per rush on average over the course of his two seasons. That falls in the middle of numbers produced by Papuchis and Bateman, but it was in the bottom five of the ACC in both 2015 and 2016. 

Chizik’s defenses were also bad on critical downs. They allowed a conversion rate of 43.42 percent on third down, which is significantly worse than that of his counterparts. His defenses also ranked last in opponents’ red zone TD conversion percentage at 59.82 percent.

Reasons for concern

The more concerning element of Chizik’s defense was the clear lack of “havoc.” That’s a metric that combines tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles. It measures how disruptive a defense is and its ability to create negative plays or turnovers. Under Chizik, North Carolina’s defenses provided minimal havoc. 

His overall havoc rate of 13.54 percent was significantly below that of Papuchis (16.36 percent) and Bateman (15.32 percent). There were issues nearly across the board. His sack rate of 2.29 percent was also dead last amongst the trio of North Carolina defensive coordinators. UNC’s 17 interceptions in 2015 are flashy, but the defense produced just 1 interception in 2016. Chizik’s defenses also had far fewer tackles for loss than his two successors. 

All of this calls into question the sustainability of Chizik’s (relative) success in 2015 and 2016. Yes, the overall efficiency numbers look good. But if this team can’t create havoc, will it be able to sustain its previous level on a per-play basis?

The other worrying factor here is that ACC offenses are indisputably better than they were in 2015 to 2016. Here’s the average ACC quarterback rating in every season from 2015-2021:

  • 2015: 129.88
  • 2016:136.95
  • 2017: 127.89
  • 2018: 130.65
  • 2019: 135.51
  • 2020: 136.25
  • 2021: 140.21

With so many star quarterbacks returning next season — Devin Leary, Sam Hartman, Malik Cunningham, Brennan Armstrong and Phil Jurkovec, to name a few — that number could very well rise again. 

Offenses are also more efficient as a whole. ACC offenses averaged 5.76 yards per play in 2015. If it stays at its current trajectory, that number will rise above 6 yards per play in 2022. The ACC’s offensive landscape is simply a different world than the one that Chizik previously coached in. 

  • 2015: 5.76 yards per play
  • 2016: 5.87 yards per play
  • 2017: 5.67 yards per play
  • 2018: 5.82 yards per play
  • 2019: 5.73 yards per play
  • 2020: 5.92 yards per play
  • 2021: 5.99 yards per play

Here’s a chart that outlines some areas where Chizik excelled and where he came up short when compared to Papuchis and Bateman:

Reasons for optimism

With all that being said, there’s two reasons why the above evidence shouldn’t be too concerning for North Carolina fans. 

First, a caveat: There’s no guarantee that Chizik will approach things the same way he did during his first stint. If you take Mack Brown at his word, Chizik has spent the last few years “studying” the latest trends in college football and will be prepared for what’s coming his way. 

“He’s spent the last five years in the media studying college football,” Brown said at Chizik’s introductory press conference. “So like me, he’s had a chance to look at a number of different schemes, while staying on top of how the game has evolved over the last few years.”

It’s worth noting he’ll have help from his co-defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who served as UNC’s defensive backs coach under Chizik from 2015-16. While Chizik was away from the sideline over the past five seasons, Warren was working at places like Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Indiana. That should be a big boost every week as the Tar Heels are crafting a defensive game plan. 

Second, a helpful fact: This North Carolina defense will have significantly more talent than Chizik’s previous units. The Tar Heels have leveled up on the recruiting trail since Chizik left. They’re now recruiting with the best of the best in the ACC and have the conference’s best class in 2022

In 2015, North Carolina’s average recruiting class ranking from the previous four cycles was roughly 32nd. Entering this season, they now rank 17th on average, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. 

The 2022 defense will have three former 5-star prospects — Tony Grimes, Keeshawn Silver and Travis Shaw. Amongst ACC teams, perhaps only Clemson will be able to boast that level of talent on the defensive side of the ball. 

Whether or not Chizik can make adjustments — or if he now has the talent to overcome previous shortcomings — will be decided in due time. For now, it’s risk that Brown and UNC’s leadership is willing to take.