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North Carolina's defensive line looks for more explosiveness

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- By year’s end, the problems for North Carolina’s defense seemed pretty clear.

The Tar Heels finished the year 12th in the ACC in sacks per game. Their rate of getting to the quarterback on blitzes was the worst among Power 5 teams. And, of course, there was the Russell Athletic Bowl, when Baylor ran roughshod past an overmatched defensive front.

And then defensive coordinator Gene Chizik looked at the tape when the season was over, and a funny thing happened. UNC’s defensive line actually didn’t look so bad.

“As we got a chance to breathe and go back and look at it,” Chizik said, “the four-man pass rush was more effective that we thought in the fall.”

The numbers can’t be ignored, and the bowl game -- played without top defensive tackle Nazair Jones -- was a perfect storm of problems, but given all the circumstances surrounding Chizik’s rebuilding job at North Carolina, the effort was actually solid from the D-line.

Take, for example, those low sack totals. No, Carolina’s line didn’t get to the QB often, but it did manage to disrupt the pocket routinely. The results weren’t sacks, but UNC’s pass defense still made huge strides, allowing just 6.07 yards per attempt (15th in Power 5) and just 2.4 pass plays of 20 yards or more per game (10th in Power 5).

That, Chizik said, was by design.

“We weren’t going to give up a lot of catastrophic plays,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we had to make all these extravagant negative plays. We just felt like if teams were going to beat us, they were going to have to drive the ball.”

As UNC turns the page on its first season under Chizik, however, he’s hoping that may start to change a bit. There still will be an emphasis on avoiding disaster and complementing what should be an explosive offense, but now that there’s a core of veterans who understand Chizik’s system, there’s a hope that the defense can be a bit more exotic.

“Last year, some of the pass-rush stuff we were doing early in the season wasn’t working,” defensive end Mikey Bart said. “This year, with us knowing gap integrity, knowing our lanes, I think we can loosen up a little more.”

Chizik’s game plan in 2015 was relatively simple: Here’s your gap; don’t leave it.

Now that the line is a bit more comfortable with both the playbook and each other, there’s some room for improvisation, and with that comes hope for some more big plays up front.

“They don’t have to baby us,” said Jones, who finished without a sack in 2015 despite being an obvious force up the middle. “It’s a bigger trust factor now, especially with the older guys. [Chizik] trusts us now, and we’ve got some leeway to do what we do and play off each other.”

Chizik also plans to let his defense off the leash a bit more, particularly on early downs. A year ago, North Carolina blitzed just 17 percent of the time on first and second down, the lowest rate in the ACC. This year, that number should climb.

“We can be more aggressive,” Chizik said, “and looking back at last year, that probably would have helped us.”

But more than anything, Chizik said last season was a testament that the numbers don’t always tell the story. He was as sure as anyone that his pass rush and his run defense had failed to deliver consistently, but the film at year’s end told a more complicated story.

There are strides this defense still needs to take, he said, and that comes with an added comfort level. But the progress still was significant, and Chizik hopes in 2016, that’s a lot more obvious than it was a year ago.