Photos by Smith Hardy and Turner Walston
They know. The Tar Heel defense knows that for the first time in Larry Fedora’s tenure at Carolina, it is their side of the ball that will carry the weight of expectations for the season. It is their side of the ball that brings back the experienced playmakers. It will be on their shoulders, the foundation upon which the 2017 team will be built, for better or worse.
And so, in their third season with John Papuchis –the newly-promoted defensive coordinator upon the retirement of Gene Chizik– the Tar Heel defense will have to play to their potential, and with a contagious confidence that can spread to the team as a whole.
“It’s executing [the scheme], and then also the mentality of bringing the pressure,” said junior linebacker Andre Smith, who asserted himself as a leader in the huddle as an underclassman; last year he had 113 total tackles. “Having that aggressive, physical mentality, and ‘I’m going to get home,’ because usually it’s a one-on-one block, and ‘I’m better than you.’ That’s usually what it comes down to: ‘I’m going to beat you.’ So we just have to, as a defense, develop that dog mentality, and execute and get home.”
As the middle linebacker, Smith is responsible for taking the play from the sideline and relaying it to his teammates. He admitted that there were times when he would have liked to blitz more, would have liked to be more aggressive, but had to trust in his coaches. “I wanted to blitz a lot of times, but I don’t make those calls,” he said. “I don’t make those decisions. I just look to the sideline, and whatever they signal, I make sure to run it to the best (of my ability). I know they’re never going to put us in a defense to get scored on or anything like that, so we just went out and executed. I really don’t have any say in that.”
But is Smith excited at the possibility of a veteran defense being more assertive under Papuchis? “Oh, abso-freaking-lutely,” he said, which means ‘yes.’ “Abso-freaking-lutely. I am so excited. I can’t wait. I’m not going to tell you what we’re doing - you’re just going to have to watch and see.”
It is refreshing to hear such boastful confidence from a player on his first day of training camp, particularly one who will be a leader on a unit that will be relied upon like never before to set the tone for the season.
Junior defensive end Malik Carney is quieter than Smith, more measured in his day-one evaluation, but he too indicated growing confidence in his side of the ball. “Definitely from last year, everybody has grown, from the guys who have been here, and incoming guys, I’m seeing them start to grow and grasp what the older guys are telling them and teaching them, so as a unit, I'd say we're getting better.”
Now is the time for growth, for installation of the offensive and defensive schemes and for coaching on technique, nailing down the details that will ultimately be magnified and make the difference on game day. There is not a lot of room between a minimal gain and a tackle for loss, or a game-changing turnover and a game-changing touchdown. And so the attitude that the defense brings to training camp will show up on the field. The foundation for the season will be laid now, in August. And while the defense does bring back veterans, they also bring in a raft of young athletes eager to see the field, eager to prove themselves and carve out a role. That motivates the young players, yes, but it also helps the more experienced players to sense someone breathing down their necks. So, just as the team and defense have large goals: winning games, winning series, winning drills; the individual players do as well. Smith wants to lead the team in tackles, and he claims that if not for missed time due to suspension and injury a year ago, it would be he, not Cole Holcomb, atop the 2016 leaderboard.
“Something that JP (Papuchis) talks about is, really, the individual goals is what should motivate you,” Smith said. “If somebody’s trying to take your position, that should also motivate you, too, but as Coach (Larry) Fedora said, no one has a position. Everyone’s competing right now, and I understand that, so we’re just going out here working hard every day, trying to earn our spot.”
So they’re bringing that dog mentality, but even then, it must be measured. While, as senior safety Donnie Miles said, “The dog should always be out, in my eyes,” one can’t be cocky and wrong, else he will be made to look a fool and be shown the bench.
“Coach Fedora said it last night,” Smith said. “He said he’s never had a great ballplayer who didn’t know what to do. So that’s what I tell the freshmen. When you first come in, learn the playbook, because if you don’t know what to do, then you can’t play freely and not think. If you don’t know the defense like the back of your hand, then you’re kind of second-guessing and thinking too much and hesitating.”
Maybe now is the time for the less-experienced players to bring the dog mentality to the learning process. “Right now, we’re getting the base fundamentals in, and trying to work on our technique every day,” Miles said. “But from the standpoint of having the ‘dog,’ that mindset has got to be every day. You can’t just turn that on.”
They’d only had the one training camp practice before speaking to the media; the Tar Heels will take the field again Thursday through Sunday, and the process continues. But it’s clear that the leaders have the dog mentality and they are capable of developing –and confident in– the young pups. And they’re excited about what can be achieved in 2017.