Friedlander: Was 1 bye week enough for Gene Chizik to work his magic on UNC's defense?
CHAPEL HILL, NC – Gene Chizik is known as something of a defensive miracle worker, a reputation he enhanced during his first tenure at North Carolina.
But Chizik is a football coach, not a magician.
As the Tar Heels’ performance over the first 3 games of his return engagement in Chapel Hill has proven, there’s more to producing a competent defense – let alone a championship-caliber unit – than coming in and waving a magic wand.
UNC’s defense is allowing 468.3 yards per game, a figure that ranks 123rd out of 131 FBS teams in total defense. Among Power 5 programs, only Nebraska is worse.
The Tar Heels are also 111th or lower in rushing defense, passing defense, red-zone defense and scoring defense (37.7 points per game allowed). The only reason they’re 3-0 and not 0-3, along with a little luck, is that their offense ranks among the top 10 nationally in virtually every statistical category the NCAA keeps, including scoring (No. 6 at 51.3 points per game).
Normally at this point in the season, coaches have to resort to smoke and mirrors to hide such deficiencies. But thanks to a well-timed early-season open date, Chizik and his boss Mack Brown have had the time to look for more substantive solutions to their defensive problems.
And the dive was a deep one.
“We went back and re-evaluated everything we’re doing,” Brown said. “And it was very helpful.”
Brown and Chizik, with the help of “some other people that weren’t sitting in the staff rooms all the time,” went back and took a critical look at UNC’s games against Florida A&M, Appalachian State and Georgia State to determine what’s wrong and how to fix it.
They looked at everything – scheme, personnel, communication, execution.
Given the numbers, you might think that they used the extra time between games to blow everything up and start all over again. But with exception of a few minor adjustments, most of the emphasis was simply on putting the right people at the right positions and getting better at doing what they’ve already been doing.
One player who could potentially see an increased role is true freshman defensive lineman Travis Shaw, who likely earned more playing time with an encouraging 17-snap outing against Georgia State.
“After 3 weeks, you can look at different players, see what their strengths and weaknesses are in games,” Chizik said. “So it’s a combination of us being able to go back and say, ‘what are our players best at? What do we need to tweak schematically as coaches to try to maximize their skill set?’ And it’s always going to be a matter of executing better.”
Chizik has always seemed to have the ability to get the best out of his players.
He won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach in 2004 for coordinating an Auburn defense that allowed the fewest points in the nation on the way to a 13-0 record and No. 2 ranking. A year later, he joined Brown at Texas and helped the Longhorns to the national championship.
After head coaching stints at Iowa State and Auburn (where he won the 2010 national title), Chizik was summoned to UNC by then-coach Larry Fedora to shore up a defense similar to the one he inherited this time around.
In just 1 season he produced a turnaround that saw the Tar Heels allow 113 fewer yards per game in 2015 than they did in 2014. The improvement helped them win a school-record 11 consecutive games and the ACC Coastal Division title.
That’s the kind of improvement Brown had in mind when he lured his old buddy out of the TV booth in January.
Technically, Chizik isn’t UNC’s defensive coordinator. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren share that title. But there’s no doubt that as “assistant head coach for defense,” Chizik is the man in charge.
As such, he’s taken full responsibility for the team’s performance. And he’s taken decisive steps to try and improve it.
But is 1 extra week enough to make a significant difference ahead of Saturday’s game against Notre Dame?
It’s not as if Chizik is being asked to paint the Sistine Chapel. As explosive as UNC’s offense has been, a simple Thomas Kinkade print would figure to be sufficient.
“I feel like over the last (few) days we’ve improved in that regard,” Chizik said. “We’ll know more Saturday night. But I feel good in terms of the players seeing what we need to do a better job of collectively, together.”
If there’s one thing the Tar Heels have going for them Saturday night beyond the extra work they’ve put in, it’s that Notre Dame is almost as challenged offensively as they’ve been on defense.
The Irish rank 114th nationally in total offense at 300.3 yards per game and are 115th in scoring at just 18.3 points – 2 major reasons they’re off to a disappointing 1-2 start under first-year coach Marcus Freeman.
They began to show some signs of life in the second half against Cal last week as backup quarterback Drew Pyne began to find a rhythm in his first start in place of an injured Tyler Buchner.
UNC’s defense also had some positives upon which to build.
Against Appalachian State, they allowed only 7 points combined in the second and third quarters before getting torched for 40 over the final 15 minutes of a wild 63-61 win. The Tar Heels put together 3 solid quarters at Georgia State in their most recent outing, including a fourth-quarter shutout that allowed Drake Maye and the offense to rally for a 35-28 win.
But they also had a third-quarter letdown that nearly cost them the game.
Asked why his defense has been able to play so well in spurts and so poorly in others, Chizik responded by saying, “it’s been kind of an enigma.”
It’s a mystery he’s spent the past week trying to solve through re-evaluation and hard work.
And maybe just a little bit of magic.