Big concerns looming for North Carolina's run defense

Nick Chubb and Georgia had a big game against North Carolina's defense. It gets no easier for the Tar Heels against James Conner and Pitt on Saturday. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

The ACC Coastal Division race is wide open, but the two preseason favorites will go head to head Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when UNC hosts Pitt.

Whether those preseason prognostications prove to be accurate is still a long way from being settled, as Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami all look strong, too. But two preseason assumptions are clear after three games:

1. Pittsburgh can run the football, averaging 239 yards per game on the ground (fourth in ACC).

2. North Carolina struggles to stop the run, allowing 227 yards per game on the ground (13th in ACC).

Advantage: Pitt.

Of course, there’s a lot more at play here, not the least of which is Pitt’s struggles in the secondary against Oklahoma State, which certainly should have Mitch Trubisky & Co. licking their chops.

But let’s focus on North Carolina’s run defense for now.

North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik pulled no punches in describing his defense as “soft,” and saying this week’s game “could get ugly” if the unit doesn’t improve dramatically.

Is it really as bad as it seems?

Comparing last year’s unit with this year’s, we don’t really see much difference. Excluding sacks, UNC is allowing essentially the same yards per rush as last season, the same yards after contact as last season and is doing slightly better at stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage.

There are two problems with this, however. The first is that last year’s run defense was pretty bad — about 10 percent worse, on average, than other teams performed against the same competition. The second is that the competition UNC has faced so far this year hasn’t exactly been stellar (with apologies to Georgia's Nick Chubb).

The Tar Heels allowed 289 rush yards to Georgia, which is 122 more than Georgia had in either of its other two games. They allowed 182 rush yards to Illinois, which is 105 more than the Illini had in either of their other two games. They allowed 209 rush yards to James Madison, which is the fourth-most allowed by a Power 5 team vs. an FCS opponent this seasons. Overall against Georgia and Illinois, North Carolina has surrendered about 50 percent more yards per carry than those teams averaged in their other two games.

Injuries have certainly played a role, with a long list of front-seven defenders banged up, including top freshman Tomon Fox and Nazair Jones, UNC’s best overall defensive lineman. Larry Fedora was evasive on whether either would be back for Pitt.

“I’m expecting whoever plays will play hard,” Fedora said.

That’s not exactly a lot of encouragement (though Jones says he'll be back this week and Dajaun Drennon expects to play for the first time this season, too).

And it might be tough for UNC to adjust with a more run-focused scheme, too. Through three games, UNC has employed at least seven defenders in the box on about half of its opponents’ run plays (which ranks in the middle of the pack among Power 5 programs), but is allowing a whopping 6.18 yards per rush in those instances. Only Cal and Syracuse have been worse among Power 5 schools. The Heels have had eight or more defenders in the box on 49 run plays this year, tops among Power 5 schools, but are still allowing nearly 6 yards per carry — including 4.06 before first contact.

So what is UNC to do?

There are no easy answers here, and that’s a good explanation for Chizik’s frustrations. The bottom line is that, indeed, UNC’s defense simply needs to get tougher and play better. Injuries happen (though ideally, UNC is getting healthier now) and the scheme isn’t helping, so the last variable under the Tar Heels’ control is effort.

“The biggest part is having an attitude adjustment and making sure that we come out with the type of energy that we need to play with,” Fedora said. “If you play with the type of energy we have, you're going to play soft, be slow, do all those things that aren't going to enable you to be a good football team. I think we'll make sure we'll get that corrected.”