Can UNC’s defense take a step forward in 2017?


Despite struggling for much of the 2016 season, North Carolina’s defense came up with a solid effort in the Sun Bowl against Stanford. Coordinator Gene Chizik’s unit held the Cardinal to under 300 yards of total offense, helping provide the Tar Heels a chance to win in the final minutes.

Though UNC still faces the prospect of losing star quarterback Mitch Trubisky, along with departing offensive weapons in Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and T.J. Logan, the Tar Heels have most of their top talent returning defensively.

UNC is losing three defensive starters to graduation — cornerback Des Lawrence, defensive end Mikey Bart and safety Dominquie Green. In addition, defensive tackle Nazair Jones has declared for the NFL Draft.

All other starters are returning. That list includes cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Donnie Miles, who each considered entering the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jalen Dalton, one of the prizes of UNC’s 2015 signing class, will be in position to challenge for the spot left behind by Jones. Jason Strowbridge and Dajaun Drennon will be looking to replace Bart at defensive end. Freshman Tomon Fox will also be back after suffering an injury early in 2016.

In the secondary, Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene and J.K. Britt will compete for the open starting spot at corner.

UNC’s defense, despite significant improvements since a disastrous 2014 campaign, still has a long way to go to be considered an elite unit. The Tar Heels gave up more than 227 rushing yards per game.

The biggest key for North Carolina defensively in 2017 will be finding a way to force turnovers. Remarkably, UNC didn’t record an interception in a single ACC regular-season contest last fall and had just one all season.

However, another year of seasoning under Chizik will benefit the team’s returning defensive players.

For those who believe in the law of averages, it’s inevitable that some bounces will go UNC’s way, and the team will pick off more passes next fall. If they can find a way to improve their run support, the Tar Heels have every opportunity to improve defensively in 2017.