David Kehrli, Correspondent
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Gene Chizik resigned from his position as defensive coordinator in February, the UNC Tar Heels immediately promoted former linebackers coach John Papuchis to the same role.
What would normally be a tough situation – losing a coach so late in the coaching change cycle – instead was quickly resolved, and months later the Heels believe their defense will be better than ever in 2017.
With uncertainty at quarterback, and the offense only returning five starters, Carolina will turn to its defense to be the strength of the team for the first time under head coach Larry Fedora.
“You guys know that we’ve lost quite a bit of production on the offensive side of the ball, so our defense this year is going to – especially early on in the year, with having the most experience – is going to have to carry us while these young guys on offense grow up a little bit,” Fedora said at the 2017 ACC Kickoff at the Westin Charlotte on Friday
The benefit of promoting Papuchis, rather than looking for a new coach on the coaching carousel, is that the defensive scheme is almost entirely the same.
“It’s been a really smooth transition,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said.
“Coach J.P. was there last year, so all the guys respect him. He has the respect of all the guys, and it’s really not a big change between Coach Chizik and Coach J.P.”
While Papuchis might seem like a downgrade simply because he has half the coaching experience of Chizik, Fedora says his value as a coordinator is probably underrated because of his extensive role in Chizik’s UNC defense.
“When we hired Gene, Gene hadn’t been a defensive coordinator for about 10 years. So there were some things in the game that he needed to adjust to, so he leaned on J.P.,” Fedora said.
“J.P. was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska. So they put together the defense together. So when Gene left, it was natural for J.P. to move into that spot. I think the transition has been very smooth. Then we hired three coaches, two of them were with J.P. at Nebraska, so they already understand it.”
Not only does Fedora not expect any drop-off from the defense, he says it is being expanded from the basic package it has been the past two years.
“We were able to expand the defense,” Fedora said.
“We were able to do more. We were more basic with what we did the last two years. Now those guys understand the base, so now it’s J.P. being able to expand it, do more over there so that we have more tackles for loss, more sacks, all of those things. So he added things to the package that our defense was able to handle.”
As for the players, the defense relishes the opportunity to carry the workload and lead the Heels to their goal of competing for the ACC Coastal Division championship.
“I would consider it an honor that the team is relying on the defense this year,” Stewart said.
“To be the backbone of a team, like I said, it’s an honor. So we’re going to take that head on, and we use that as motivation defensively to show people that we’re one of the best defenses in the nation.”
Whether Carolina succeeds in winning the Coastal Division will depend heavily on if the Heels can make the jump from good to elite on the defensive side of the ball.