North Carolina co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and defensive backs coach Dre Bly made their point in colorful graphics of how the Tar Heels’ came up short in turnovers when compared to other defenses.
It was right there in the Powerpoint presentation: Carolina managed only 11 takeaways last season. Ohio State forced 19 turnovers in just eight total games. Alabama had 11 interceptions alone. Clemson totaled 25 takeways for the season.
That discrepancy led UNC coach Mack Brown to consult with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll back in the spring. One of Brown’s former defensive coordinators at Texas, Greg Robinson, was a college teammate of Carroll., and Brown believed the two of them had a way of coaching turnovers that he wanted to implement at Carolina.
“They did a better job of teaching guys and expecting guys to force turnovers,” Brown said. “...Everything that Pete does is competition, everything. And our business is about how hard can your team compete every week. So that’s every drill we have, there’s a winner and a loser.”
Brown is getting the desired results so far this season. Through three games, the Heels have already forced five turnovers, which is tied for third-best in the ACC with Boston College and Duke.
“We only had 11, which was at the bottom half of college football,” UNC linebacker Cedric Gray said. “So just really putting that emphasis on turning the ball over, making it easier for our offense to score by flipping the field. We had a really big emphasis on the offseason and you see it’s showing up in the games.”
Brown said the Heels have improved partly because they’ve been better at stopping the run. UNC is allowing an average of 112 rushing yards per game so far. Brown said by putting teams in obvious passing downs, it provides the opportunity for strip sacks of the quarterback; forced fumbles on receivers who are more likely than running backs to fumble; or gives the secondary a chance for an interception.
Bateman said back in the spring that having more veteran players on the defensive side helped, as well.
“You become more more confident in going for the football instead of trying to make a tackle at times,” he said. “And I think I think that that’s what we’ve done.”
The Heels will have a substantial challenge trying to create a turnover against Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets lead the ACC with just two turnovers, both of which were fumbles, this season.
But even against a team that takes care of the ball, senior linebacker Jeremiah said the mentality of Carolina’s defense has changed to where they expect to create turnovers now.
“That’s just stuff we’ve been preaching about all offseason and you can see is translating to the games,” Gemmel said.
Carolina has already surpassed its red zone turnovers from last season, though that wasn’t very hard to do. The Heels had just one takeaway inside their own 20 last season. They’ve already come up with two red zone turnovers with Trey Morrison’s forced fumble against Virginia Tech that safety Ja’Qurious Conley recovered. And Chris Collins got an early step into the Virginia backfield on Saturday, forcing a bad handoff and fumble that was scooped up by linebacker Des Evans.
Collins said back in the spring that the Heels were becoming better at swarming the ball as a unit.
“When you look at people that cause turnovers, they have 11 guys running to the ball non-stop,” Collins said. “The first guy comes to tackle, the second guy comes in clean and pops the ball out. The first guy gets a tip, the second guy comes running and gets the pick. If you have 11 guys with unstoppable effort, turnovers are naturally going to happen.”
Brown said the Heels had a chance to create four more turnovers against Virginia that they missed on, but he reserved his criticism for the turnovers that cost them 15 yards. After Conley intercepted UVA’s Brennan Armstrong, he ran some 30 yards to celebrate in front of the student section. He got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I would rather when we intercept the pass not run down to the student section and cost us 15 yards,” Brown said. “So we’re gonna have that discussion. They were really excited, but we need to act like we’ve intercepted balls before.”