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Week 1 Defensive Preview: UNC

Cal looks to defeat North Carolina for two-straight season openers

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Scouting Report:

Scheme: Attacking 4-3, Cover-2

Defensive Coordinator: John Papuchi

2017 Rush Defense: Ranked 112th nationally, 4.8 yards per rush, 213 YPG, 21 touchdowns allowed

2017 Pass Defense: Ranked 80th nationally, 7 interceptions, 223 YPG, 13.33 yards per completion

2017 3rd Down Conversion Percentage: Ranked 54th nationally, .374 % of third downs converted by opposing offenses

2017 Team Sacks: Ranked 74th nationally, 23 team sacks

2017 Red Zone Defense: Ranked 27th nationally, 14 rushing touchdowns, 13 passing touchdowns, 13 field goals made

Defensive Line

The Tar Heels run four down lineman for a majority of the snaps. Papuchi has emphasized in the offseason for the defensive line to have a more attacking mindset when engaging with opposing offensive lineman. The D-line is definitely the biggest strength on North Carolina’s defense. Since hiring Papuchi in 2015, the team has steadily increased their production in terms of sacks and tackles for loss every year. 2017 UNC sack leader and overall best defensive player Malik Carney returned for his senior season. Despite having to serve a four-game suspension, Carney could lead the Tar Heels in sacks for third year in a row. Eight other defensive line contributors from last season return as well.

UNC carries a lot of depth at the defensive tackle position. Former Tar Heel run stuffer, Seattle Seahawks third-round draft choice, and all-around big fellow Nazair Jones is expected to be replaced by a deadly combination of junior Jeremiah Clarke and sophomore Aaron Crawford, although Crawford will reportedly miss our game due to injury. Clarke will be a disruptive force whom the Golden Bears must conquer for Patrick Laird to be able to run the ball well.

In a not-so-lucky break for Cal, Carney and fellow starting defensive end Tomon Fox won’t be serving their four game suspensions until after the team meets for the season opener on September 1. The Tar Heels defensive line will be Cal’s biggest challenge for scoring touchdowns.


Coming off of a season where opponents averaged 5.85 yards per play (which ranked 83rd nationally), North Carolina will definitely be expecting improvement from their linebacker corps. They were left with a hole in the center of the defense when middle linebacker Andre Smith decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. Former 3-star recruit Jonathan Smith and true freshman David Flint will attempt to replace Smiths production.

Outside linebacker Cole Holcomb returns for his third year as a starter on the second level. As a former walk-on, Holcomb has played a big role since earning a scholarship in 2016. He led UNC in tackles last season and the year before. Other outside ‘backers junior Dominique Ross and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Gemmel will both receive more playing time this season and figure to split snaps until one of them emerges as an obvious starter.

Linebacker is a thin position for North Carolina, which the Golden Bears can take advantage of. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin should attack with screen passes, outside zone sweeps, and empty sets to maximize winning efforts.

Defensive Backs

It will be difficult for the Heels to replace a player like corner back M.J. Stewart. Stewart was a second-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was certainly their best defensive back. Junior K.J. Sails will slide into the CB1 role after leading the team with 13 pass-breakups in 11 starts last season. Starting opposite of him should be junior Patrice Rene. Rene made three starts in 2017 and appeared in 11 games. Former 4-star prospect C.J. Cotman should see some playing time as well.

Myles Dorn will be roaming the backend of the field as the starting free safety. His sideline-to-sideline range was evident judging from his statline. Dorn’s play all over the field earned him the tie for team lead of interceptions and third place in tackles.

Senior J.K. Britt started six games at strong safety after Donnie Mills was lost for the season with a broken forearm. As one of the veterans on defense this year, Britt figures to be in a heavy leadership role for the guys under him.

The success of Cal’s passing attack will hinge on how the upperclassmen replacing the departing players fare in year three of Papuchi’s Cover-2.


How many points will Cal score against North Carolina

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  • 3%
    (7 votes)
  • 13%
    (27 votes)
  • 70%
    (145 votes)
  • 10%
    (21 votes)
  • 2%
    50 or more
    (5 votes)
205 votes total Vote Now