When Larry Fedora hired Gene Chizik to fix the North Carolina defense two years ago, it came with the understanding that it could be a temporary arrangement.
Chizik left his family behind at Auburn to take the job, but never felt comfortable being so far away from them for so long. So after this last recruiting cycle ended, Chizik told Fedora he wanted to return home to his family after two years on the job.
His departure drew the biggest headlines, but the entire defensive staff went through an overhaul this offseason. John Papuchis, elevated to defensive coordinator, is the only holdover from last season. The Tar Heels feature new coaches for the defensive line (Deke Adams) and secondary (Kerry Joseph), and added Mike Ekeler from North Texas.
Fedora said in a phone interview Tuesday that he feels good about his new staff despite the many changes.
"Most people would say, 'Wow, you’ve got almost your whole staff changed over, how would you feel good about it?'" Fedora said. "Mike Ekeler and Kerry Joseph both worked with (Papuchis) at Nebraska, so they have history, they’ve worked in this defense before, and you also have Deke Adams who worked with me before at Southern Miss and here at Carolina, so I feel really good about where those guys are. I feel good about their knowledge of the defense and their teaching progression."
As for Chizik, Fedora said, "It’s a difficult situation when you’re away from your family, and Gene made a decision based on his family and you can’t ever fault a man for that."
Though Fedora knew Chizik could walk away at any time, he decided to hire him anyway because the defense so badly needed a fresh start.
"In this profession, when are they not short-term things?" Fedora said. "As a head coach, you’re always trying to do what’s best for your program, and you always have a plan. I knew we had really good coaches on our staff, and we had other guys I believed could be defensive coordinator, so once they put that system together and everybody became comfortable with it and I was comfortable knowing I had the next guy in line if he decided to leave at any time ... we're just very comfortable moving (Papuchis) into that position, and I believe we won’t miss a beat."
For Chizik, the results over two years as defensive coordinator were mixed. The run defense remains an area that must improve, while the overall unit made moderate gains. But Fedora credits Chizik for changing the culture of the defense, which lacked accountability before Chizik arrived.
"We’re better overall just culture-wise," Fedora said. "Our guys believe now in what they’re doing. They believe in their base, they know they can be successful. There are answers for anything that comes up, so that gives them some confidence. They’re also being held to a certain standard and they’re being held accountable. All those things together make us a better defense."
North Carolina opens spring practice next week in what amounts to a crucial season for a group that has made some strides but hasn’t quite reached elite status. With Papuchis in charge, nothing changes for the players. The scheme and everything that is being asked of them stays the same.
Perhaps the biggest change is this: Fedora believes his defensive line should be the strength of the defense. It’s been years since Fedora could say that, so his confidence in that group underlines the strides he believes Chizik made in a short period of time.
"We’ve been so young that I haven’t been able to say that. I do have high expectations for us," Fedora said.