UNC's secondary showing improvement, tough test ahead

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

This past spring, first-year North Carolina defensive coordinator Everett Withers wrote down specific goals for his defense. At the top of the list was leading the nation in pass defense.

For now, the Tar Heels will have to settle for leading the nation with 12 interceptions.

North Carolina's defense has been much more effective creating turnovers this season, but will need more from the secondary heading into Saturday's game against Notre Dame and steadily-improving quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who hasn't thrown an interception in the past two games.

"This will be the biggest test that they've faced in the passing game because the offensive line at Notre Dame does a great job of protection, they do a good job of keeping tight ends and backs in at times, they don't let you overlook the protections and they've got talented wide receivers," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. " Clausen is throwing the ball very well. They're very knowledgeable in the passing game. So this will be probably the biggest test from a pass perspective that our secondary has faced."

UNC had 11 total interceptions in 2007 and have already surpassed that in their first five games with 12, including two which resulted in touchdowns. Much of the difference can be attributed to senior safety Trimane Goddard being healthy. He started all 12 games last season, but played nine of them with a broken bone in his wrist. He also fractured his foot after the 2005 season and did it again (same foot) in 2006 during a non-contact drill in fall camp. Now Goddard leads the nation with four interceptions.

"He's such a good, quiet leader," Davis said. "He's professional about the way that he works, the way he studies film. He's infectious to the young kids because they see the byproduct of his work during the week manifests itself on Saturday by having the awareness and being savvy enough to be in the right place to take advantage of opportunities to make plays."

Last year, North Carolina allowed 207.3 passing yards per game, and this year is holding opponents to 201.4. Eight different players have had interceptions this year, and they've racked up 302 interception return yards -- 39 shy of the school-record 341 set in 1972 when the team had 21 interceptions. The last time the Tar Heels had more than 12 interceptions in a season was in 1999, when they had 13.

"It's nothing I've done," Withers said. "There are a lot of players who have sacrificed and done a lot of good work. I think we do a good job as coaches of trying to get the kids the information on formations and motions and this is what they like on third and three, this is what they like on third and seven, how they play action pass on first and 10. We just try to get them that information and keep harping on it and hopefully it sticks when it comes to game time."

Goddard said the staff's preparation has paid dividends on Saturdays.

"I feel very confident in knowing their tendencies and what they're going to do in a certain situation," he said. "The way coach Withers prepares us, whether we're watching film, or extra film studies or tip sheets, I go out there confident and prepared each week."

Despite their early success, Withers said he is expecting more from his group in the second half of the season. After all, they only rank 58th in the nation in pass defense.

"No. 1 in interceptions doesn't get us No. 1 in pass defense," Withers said. "We've got goals to get. That's what we're shooting for. We've got 'em written down, that's what we want to do."