North Carolina Tar Heels

Will UNC ever field a dominant defense under Larry Fedora?

CHAPEL HILL, NC - SEPTEMBER 09: Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) avoids the tackle by North Carolina Tar Heels safety Myles Dorn (1) and scores a touchdown during the game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC. The Cardinals defeated the Tar Heels 47 - 35. (Photo by Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire)
Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire

Look across the country. It’s difficult to find any football program that doesn’t face lingering questions two weeks into the season.

It’s impossible to have everything figured out just two games into the year. That goes for perennial powerhouses loaded with juniors and seniors, especially lower-level programs in the process of rebuilding.

UNC fits the latter description, so the simple fact that the Tar Heels are still searching for clear answers in some areas is far from a surprise. What’s alarming, however, is where much of the uncertainty lies.

In Saturday’s 47-35 loss to Louisville, North Carolina’s greatest struggles didn’t come on an offense that’s still trying to replace loads of talented players who are now playing on Sundays. Despite the losses of two record-breaking return men from the 2016 roster, the Tar Heels even managed to win the special teams battle against the Cardinals.

Instead, the most glaring problems could be found on a defense UNC desperately needed to be better this season.

Under Larry Fedora, that’s nothing new.

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson accounted for 525 of Louisville’s 705 yards on Saturday — the most ever for an opposing player against UNC. Jackson also became just the seventh player ever to score six touchdowns in a game versus the Tar Heels. Those numbers are staggering even for the most dangerous player in college football.

The Cardinals averaged 8.5 yards per play, running freely and finding open spaces with ease in the passing game. Rarely did North Carolina’s defense challenge Jackson to thread the ball into tight spaces.

The game gave every indication that this will be another season in which UNC will have to win shootouts.

At no point in Fedora’s six seasons has North Carolina finished higher than No. 42 in scoring defense. The Tar Heels have consistently ranked in the middle of the pack in that category in the ACC, with 2014 providing the lone outlier: a dead-last ranking. Fedora’s teams have lived and died by outscoring their opponents.

If there has ever been a time for that to change, it’s now. A quarterback controversy between senior Brandon Harris and redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt will continue into Week 3, while an offensive line decimated by injuries presents unforeseen challenges. This offense won’t match the production of Mitch Trubisky and Marquise Williams over the last two seasons.

It’s now the defense’s turn to step up.

On paper, the potential is there for this to be the best defense UNC has had under Fedora. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis entered the season with a deep group on the line, proven veterans at linebacker, and what appeared to be one of the stronger defensive backfields in the ACC. So far, though, the results have been underwhelming.

The Tar Heels have allowed the ninth-most points per game (41) of 130 FBS teams and are No. 127 in the country in yards given up per play (7.53). The team’s flaws aren’t limited to the defense, but that phase of the game is the biggest reason why UNC currently sits at 0-2.

Next week offers an excellent opportunity: The Heels travel to Norfolk, Va., to face an Old Dominion squad that’s sputtering on offense.

Not only does UNC need a strong performance from its defense next Saturday, but it will need to build off it in the weeks that follow.

If the Tar Heels can’t get it right on that side of the ball soon, it’s hard to imagine they ever will under Fedora.

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