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September 8, 2012North Carolina's defense, coming off an impressive shutout in last weekend's season opener against Elon, is looking to make an even bigger statement this week as they head to Winston-Salem for today's ACC opener at Wake Forest.
In an effort to bring back some of the swagger to the UNC defense which has been lost in recent years, the Tar Heels have been practicing and working with a single-minded purpose to play faster, play smarter, and to force turnovers.
"Everybody is making plays. Everybody is making plays. Whether it's boundary corner, the field corner, the 'Bandit,' the 'Ram,' the 'scat' safety, the free safety, everybody is contributing. Everybody is excited. And we push each other every day," said junior cornerback Jabari Price. "There's nobody leaving anybody out to dry. We're helping each other and trusting each other."
"We're just trying to get this 'Rude Boys' mentality back," Price added. "In previous years the ball is the issue. Whereas last year we didn't force as many turnovers, now we're forcing turnovers and making plays."
"It's definitely pushing the young guys to get the mentality, even when I leave, where we all can continue. I want it to continue even when I'm gone."
"It's a fun defense. Theres a lot of chaos. A lot of blitzing. It's going to keep opposing offenses on their toes. They're not going to know who's coming from where, and I definitely think that can play to our advantage," added junior defensive lineman Tim Jackson.
One of the exciting things for the Tar Heel players is that the 4-2-5 scheme is playing to their strengths and allowing them to take advantage of their athleticism in ways that perhaps wasn't as prevalent before at UNC.
"One thing about this year, they (the Tar Heel coaches) actually encourage you to sprint upfield and wreak havoc in the (offensive) backfield, as opposed to previous years (where the former UNC coaches) wanted you to grind and pound and stay on the line. So I'm able to run upfield and do what I do, and just be free and wreak havoc, break glass in a sense."
For head coach Larry Fedora, bringing the unique, attacking 4-2-5 scheme to Chapel Hill was a no-brainer.
"I think it creates some very difficult situations for quarterbacks," said Fedora of the scheme. "Studying it, trying to scheme against it, and watching other teams that ran it. You watched West Virginia back when they were doing it. There were some teams that you just studied throughout the time. You had teams that would 'sub' to it and stuff, so why not go to it all the time?"
"Just as long as they know what to do, the scheme is going to give them a chance to really make a lot of plays," Fedora added.
Part of 'Going to the 4-2-5 all the time' was bringing over defensive coaches Dan Disch and Vic Koenning, two proponents of the scheme who have employed it successfully at multiple other coaching destinations.
"We brought Disch in this past year at Southern Miss. We installed it (the 4-2-5) in one year, and that's the reason we won a championship," Fedora said.
Disch has been working throughout the spring and summer months with Price and the other Tar Heel defensive backs about getting to the ball and forcing turnovers, with fundamentals and strategy mixed in.
Price in particular has thrived under the tutelage, becoming a more complete defender, and others, such as Tre Boston, have also merged well with the new schemes.
"I'll take all the Jabari Prices we can get," said Coach Fedora. "Jabari is doing a nice job. Yes, he is (a physical player). I'll just put it like that. Jabari has made a bunch of plays in practice. And then Tre Boston, he's always there. He knows what he's doing every single time."
"He (Price) is that boundary corner that's going to be able to make a lot of plays for us with the coverages that we play. And he's physical enough to do it, you know. The thing for him is to just being consistent every day. If he can do that every day, then he's got a chance to be a really good player."
In order for the UNC secondary to have the best chance of impacting a game with forced turnovers, tipped balls, and other big plays downfield, it's imperative for the defensive linemen in the 4-2-5 scheme to get after the quarterback, make things confusing up front for opposing offensive linemen, and allow the linebackers to clean up the mess.
"We need to make plays, because we don't have the depth we use to have in the past," said senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
"In the spring, it was the first time things were being thrown at you. The offense was going so fast and our heads were just spinning, so we were messing up on plays here and there. Now it's more like, 'I know what I'm supposed to do,' and I'm in condition now. But it's slowed down a lot more obviously."
"Kareem Martin, he's really made some nice plays," added Coach Fedora talking about the UNC defensive line. "I think he's a lot better today than he was in the spring. I think in the spring he was kind of feeling himself along, kind of getting a feel for what it was like, and I've seen him turn himself loose out there."
"Kareem is really good with his hands. He's 260 pounds and he can move. I think he's got a chance to be really, really good for us."
With Williams, Martin, and Tim Jackson, along with Shawn Underwood, Ethan Farmer, Jessie Rogers, and Devonte Brown working into the regular defensive line rotation, UNC will look to seriously challenge Wake Forest's inexperienced offensive line throughout the afternoon Saturday.
For Jackson, who has moved from defensive end to the 'three-technique' defensive tackle spot, Saturday will be his first real challenge going up against ACC-caliber interior offensive linemen, and it's going to be interesting to see how he performs with it.
"It was a big jump for Tim (moving inside)," said quarterback Bryn Renner.
"We talked in the summer, just me and him, but he's stepped up in this role. The best thing he can do is do it for the team, playing three-technique, and do the best he can."
"I have long arms, so that definitely helps to keep those guys (offensive linemen) off me," Jackson added. "I know playing with my speed is an advantage to get past those linemen but at the same time, but also holding point and taking on those double-teams."
Jackson has spoken with former UNC defensive standout Quinton Coples, who underwent a similar transition from end to tackle during Carolina's suspension and dismissal-filled 2010 season.
"I actually talked to him (Coples) a few weeks ago about the transition," Jackson said.
"He told me bottom-line you have to keep those guys off you, use your length, and be a man down there."
Jackson was effective against Elon using his length, speed, and size to penetrate the Phoenix line of scrimmage, and he'll need to have similar success Saturday to help the UNC defense have the kind of game they're hoping to have.
"The defense is definitely looking good. We're making huge strides," Jackson said. "We're playing a lot faster now that we know our assignments, and I think we're going to have a good year."