When Mack Brown decided that some changes needed to be made this off season with the Tar Heels defense he turned to a trusted and familiar face in Gene Chizik to return to Chapel Hill for second stint calling the defense.
Chizik was Mack's defensive coordinator at Texas in 2005-06 before embarking on his own head coaching journey at Iowa State and then Auburn. After a few seasons away from the sidelines after being let go on The Plains, Chizik was brought to UNC by Larry Fedora as his defensive coordinator in 2015-16. After stepping away after the 2016 season to spend more time with his family, Chizik is back for a second time to help get the UNC defense back on track.
The veteran defensive coach is now tasked with turning around a defense that finished the 2021 season 105th in scoring defense after giving up big plays far too many times.
Throughout the spring, Chizik talked about keeping the building blocks of the defense simple and small and then work their way up from there. So what was starting point for Chizik? An emphasis on communication.
“One of the main emphasis that we all really, really zeroed in on from the front all the way to the back is communication," Chizik shared in a post spring practice presser earlier this year.
“If you're bad in business, if you're bad in your family, if you're bad in a relationship, if you're bad in anything, it usually comes down to communication. It just does. That's kind of the fall of mankind. When things don't go well, it's because there's probably a communication gap in there somewhere. So when we first came, we felt like the communication, particularly on the back end, and the secondary was a place we really, really needed to emphasize and really make a lot of strides.”
Chizik shared that early on in spring ball players didn't fully grasp what they were looking for in terms of how often the communication needed to happen and how demonstrable the coaches wanted it to be. That eventually began to change practices 5 through 7 and from there it really took off.
Most of the time when coaches talk about communication we all think of presnap communication, but Chizik says their expectation for efficient, effective communication stretched beyond that to post-snap as well. That has not only become necessary as offenses have continue to evolve of the years, but it has also helped identify who is communicating while watching film.
"One of the things that we like to do for the players is that when the ball is snapped, post snap as part of the communication process because we can't hear them when we watch the film, but we can see them point at it."
"If they're trying to communicate post snap, we can see them point, and that means that there was some sort of post snap communication going on as well. That tells us that they saw it, they recognized that, they pointed it out, which means more than likely they were actually communicating it with their buddy. So it's not just pre snap, it's post snap, as well.”
A lot of coaches will dominate the conversation in film sessions, but at a UNC defensive meeting under Chizik, that's not the case as communication continues to be emphasized there.
Chizik calls the approach "interactive learning," and it took some getting used to.
"We make them talk in the meetings. Meetings aren't one sided. We don't sit there and monopolize the meeting room. We make them verbalize and communicate back to us what they're saying, what their responsibilities are, what their communication processes.
"It was probably a little bit different for them at first, A lot of times people have meetings and players don't say anything in the meetings, that's not the way we do it. It's interactive learning. So I think as the practices went on, and the meetings went on, and the teaching went on, I feel like that's where we really started to see some progress."
Hear more from Chizik on the importance of communication for them below.