North Carolina's defense struggled during coach Larry Fedora's first season.
Kareem Martin remembers a string of missed assignments and inconsistent performances. Things must change if the Tar Heels want to hang with sixth-ranked South Carolina in next week's road opener, much less contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship by November.
"This year we've had the whole offseason with the playbook and we've had a lot of extra film sessions," the senior defensive end said Friday. "There's just a lot more confidence just going around with what to do with everything."
UNC ranked 10th among the league's 12 schools last year by allowing 32.9 points in conference games. That included a stretch in which the Tar Heels allowed 500 yards in three straight games and at least 33 points in four of the final five games, including 68 in a home loss to Georgia Tech.
During the team's preseason media day earlier this month, Fedora said the defense had "probably a little bit of a confidence problem" as the season closed without a postseason game due to NCAA sanctions. He said Friday there's been improvement in preseason workouts, though no one will really know for sure until the Tar Heels take the field against the Gamecocks on Thursday night.
"There's a lot less mental mistakes, a lot fewer missed assignments," Fedora said. " Our guys I think have a much better feel for what we're doing. Because of that you see they're running to the ball and their aggressiveness. You just see that, a whole lot more of it now because they're not thinking as much."
South Carolina tailback Mike Davis said he's seen film on some of the Tar Heels' defensive lapses from 2012 but isn't going to prepare as though the same porous unit will show up in Columbia.
"Probably expecting a tighter group," Davis said. "I don't put anything past anyone. You never know what might happen."
Fedora said the defensive coaches have pushed the Tar Heels to become better tacklers in the open field, where spread offenses frequently leave defenders alone on 1-on-1 plays where mistakes can turn short gains into big plays. That's a big area of concern for UNC, which allowed 40 plays of at least 20 yards or more in league games - fifth-most in the ACC - according to STATS.
The two-game stretch against rival North Carolina State and Georgia Tech was a particularly rough road. The Wolfpack had five scoring plays of at least 20 yards - including 55- and 83-yard touchdown passes - and finished with 534 total yards in the Tar Heels' 43-35 win. Two weeks later, the Yellow Jackets had four scoring plays of at least 20 yards and finished with 588 total yards in Georgia Tech's 68-50 win.
Vic Koenning, UNC's associate head coach for defense, oversaw units that made big improvements during stops at Clemson, Kansas State and Illinois before arriving in Chapel Hill with Fedora. He's hoping the Tar Heels can make their own leap forward in Year 2.
"The kids have got a better understanding of what the calls are and what's expected," Koenning said. "Last year we had a whole bunch of guys that were either learning new techniques or learning new verbiage. They've had a year and a bunch of repetitions to improve.
"You know, I don't know if they're better players this year or not, that remains to be seen. We've got some guys that couldn't really play last year because they couldn't do anything right, even the simplest stuff right. They're a year better. So we're expecting some great things."