Part of ACC Week.
About this time last year — before the agents, the investigations and the suspensions that loomed over the season — the buzz surrounding North Carolina's defense had nothing to do with scandal. It was about just how good the Tar Heels were going to be. How could they not? Nine starters were back from a unit that had led the ACC in total defense in 2009 and finished in the top 15 nationally in every major category. Six of those starters had earned first or second-team All-ACC honors as sophomores and juniors, and at least four of them were being floated by NFL scouts as likely first-rounders in the 2011 Draft. Man for man, it looked like the best defense in the nation, bar none.
By the season opener, it was a makeshift, attrition-ravaged wreck playing with its entire starting defensive line and three-fourths of the starting secondary watching on TV. Seven first-stringers missed at least one game; four missed the entire season, including soon-to-be draft picks Robert Quinn (a first-round pick) and Marvin Austin (second round). Altogether, the Heels lost a staggering 89 starts to injury or suspension on both sides of the ball, most in the nation by far, and it showed: Even with a significantly improved offense, UNC came in at 8-5 for the second year in a row, dropping three games in which the offense scored at least 24 points. On paper, the hastily revamped defense regressed by every possible measure — and on the scoreboard, too, where it allowed almost a full touchdown more per game.
By the end of the year, though, the debacle was beginning to seem less like a missed opportunity than a momentary window to reload. If it fulfills its potential, the 2011 defense has a chance to emerge as the domineering unit the 2010 edition was supposed to before Marvin Austin's Twitter feed hit the fan.
Again, the optimism starts up front, where Quinn's role as edge-rusher-in-residence was inherited by Quinton Coples, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound nightmare who racked up 10 sacks, a first-team All-ACC nod and unanimous projections as a top-10 pick in next year's draft. (He also passed NCAA scrutiny earlier this year.) Coples' counterpart on the other end of the line, Donte Paige-Moss, is widely expected to join him in the first round. Depending on who you ask, so might speedy outside linebacker Zach Brown. Defensive tackle Tydreke Powell is being sized up for the second day of the draft, as a possible third-rounder, at least. Cornerback Charles Brown, a 2010 suspendee who decided to take a redshirt, is still very much on the scouts' radar and could move up with a solid return. Middle linebacker Kevin Reddick, the leading tackler, has a likely pro future when he comes out in two years.
Once again, man for man, it looks like the best collection of individual talent in the conference; outside of the embarrassment of riches at Alabama, the Heels may be as loaded as any defense in the country.
If there's a question, personnel-wise, it's in the secondary, where the only player with regular starting experience (Brown) is coming off a full season on the bench. The more pressing question, though, is whether the "potential" will actually yield better results with a full season and offseason under its belt as a unit. The pass-rushing talent up front didn't stop the run defense or total defense from dipping from the best in the conference in both categories in '09 to fourth; for that matter, the defense as a whole was mediocre by ACC standards at getting to the quarterback and well below par when it came to tackles for loss. The secondary actually regressed later in the season, after a round of musical chairs had restored three suspended starters (all now graduated) to their old positions.
All of which is to be expected from a group of mostly new starters playing together for the first time, under the circumstances. The week-to-week lineup was chaos. But with the first wave of NCAA-inflicted pain behind them, and the next wave not likely to strike until well after the season, the last available window for making good on the promise that was snatched away last year is only open for a limited time.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.