As the Tar Heel defense went through their cool-down stretches and exercises on the eastern half of the football field at Kenan Stadium, defensive coordinator John Papuchis weaved his way through the rows of players, yelling in his trebly rasp.
"If the guy next to you messes up, do you just sit there quiet, or do you fix it?" he asked.
"Fix it!" the players responded in unison.
The Carolina defense has the opportunity to fix a lot in 2017. Papuchis's elevation to the coordinator position came on the heels of Gene Chizik's retirement. Papuchis and Larry Fedora then brought in three new position coaches: Deke Adams on the defensive line, returning for his second stint under Fedora in Chapel Hill; linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, who worked with Papuchis at LSU and Nebraska; and defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, who came to Chapel Hill from Texas A&M. Papuchis, Ekeler and Joseph were all graduate assistants on Les Miles' LSU staff in 2006.
It's a revamped staff, but the concepts remain consistent under Papuchis, generally the same if a bit graduated in his third year at Carolina.
"Philosophically and schematically, we had a lot of common beliefs," Papuchis said Thursday of himself and Chizik. "There's not a lot of change in terms of the core. Now, how we teach it, and some of the pressures or some of the things we do and how we call a game is going to be different, but I keep most of that in the pocket until we get to the season."
Football players often talk about getting to the next level of thinking on the field, or, better put, acting instinctively rather than thinking at all. That involves not only knowing one's job on the field, but being familiar with the assignments of the players around you, knowing who will be where and when so that one can play freely within the game plan. With the middle of the defense returning –Carolina brings back seven of 11 defensive starters from the Sun Bowl– the Tar Heels should be able to play more comfortably in 2017. And the returning players can share their experience with a group of newcomers eager to contribute, even as the scheme continues to evolve.
"I don't think, defensively or offensively, there's ever an end to the evolution of your package," Papuchis said, "but we're so much further along than we were two years ago. It was a new front, it was a new coverage style, new terminology when we first came in. I think one of the Coach Fedora had in mind when we made the transition was that we were going to have continuity. Obviously, we've had that in terms of terminology and philosophy. I really like where we're at."
And that means being able to rely on his players to help out one another, to make sure that they get right.
"When you know everything, it definitely helps," said linebacker Cole Holcomb. "You know where you can cheat, where you've got your help, where you can be more aggressive, so it's definitely helped, being able to know everybody's responsibility."
Tuesday's scrimmage was instructive for both the coaches and players. It told the coaches what they need to emphasize in practice. It gave the players an opportunity to evaluate how far they've come –or not– early in the fall.
"It was the first time we get to see them in a live situation where we're not helping them out," Fedora said, "and so you get to see really see what they know You start grading missed assignments . . . even though they may be answering in the meeting, they may not be able to transfer it on the field at this time, so they're not processing it quick enough. So you change the way you start teaching it."
"It was nice finally being able to go live for the first time of the year, so that was always fun," said Holcomb. "I feel like we were excited. That's always happening for the first scrimmage. But overall, it went pretty well. We did some good things, did some bad things. We're kind of finding out where we are as a defense and what we've got to work on."
Simply because of what the Tar Heels lost on offense and return on defense, the position battles at quarterback, running back and receiver, the perception is that the defense is ahead of the offense and therefore should win most of the scrimmage battles. But no one would say if that was indeed the case. "The offense has got some things they're working on and they're trying to figure out some spots," Holcomb said. "I feel like as a defense, we're kind of getting pretty solid. We've got a lot of experience over on that side now, so things are starting to solidify. We're thinking about things a lot faster than we were last year."
"The offense is playing with a chip on their shoulder," said defensive end Dajaun Drennon. "Everybody's talking about how we don't have Mitch Trubisky, T.J. Logan, Mack Hollins, Bug Howard, so on and so forth . . . they have something that they have to prove. They want to show people that we don't necessarily need those guys to win games. They can step up and they can be a force, too."
But while they're all teammates on Saturdays, it's the defense's job to win the weekday during scrimmages, and it's the offense's job to beat the defense. And so when one teammate sees another messing up . . . "We get it fixed right away," Holcomb said. "You need to get right. We know they know it, because we sit in meetings with them all day, they've just got to put it on the field now."