Turner's Take: Farmer on the Field
It was some 37 degrees on Navy Fields by the time football practice wrapped up yesterday evening. Defensive tackle Ethan Farmer didn’t seem fazed by the temperature. “It’s weather, you know?” he said. “We’re just going to get used to it anyway. We know what October and November mean to us, so like Coach Fedora says, it’s the second half of football. We’ve got to get ready for it.”
After beginning the season at 1-5, Carolina is undefeated in that second half of the football season, and the play of Farmer up front is a big part of that improvement. Farmer redshirted in 2010 as he moved from tight end to the defensive line. Today, he starts alongside seniors Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson up front. With the loss of NFL first round pick Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle, the Tar Heels needed someone to step forward. The 6’3, 295-pound Farmer was that someone. “I’ve been talking to the older guys like Kareem and Tim,” he said. “They just kept pushing me forward and telling me that I need to step up, and I took it upon myself to step up.”
Farmer stepped up in a big way in last week’s win against Virginia. He had four tackles and a quarterback hurry and was the team’s defensive player of the game. Those might not look like gaudy numbers, but a defensive tackle’s responsibilities aren’t just limited to taking an offensive player to the ground. “That’s a good honor,” Martin said of Farmer’s recognition. “A lot of guys wouldn’t expect that from him, but watching film, he was coming off the ball great and staying in his gap. He’s improving week to week and it’s just great to see where he’s finally ending up.”
Tackles and hurries show up in a box score, but eating up blockers and freeing up teammates to make plays might not be so evident. Glory or not, that’s part of a defensive tackle’s job. “Stay in your gap and you fit your gaps very well, and if your linebacker doesn’t come in, you’re still going to get an opportunity to make a play,” Farmer said.
One of the concepts that the Tar Heel defense has started to grasp in recent weeks is that the individuals don’t have to make every play themselves. Trust the scheme and do your job, trust the players around you to do their jobs, and the plays will be made. “The only thing you’ve got to do is just stay in your gaps and read the plays,” Farmer said. “Do what you’re supposed to do and make plays.”
With the improved defensive play of late, Fedora has spoken of individual players in similar ways. They have grasped the concepts of the defense to the point that it’s second nature now. The same is true of Farmer. “You know what he’s doing?” Fedora asks. “He’s not worried about anything. He’s just playing ball and doing his job. He takes care of his gap, his responsibility, and he’s playing with low pad level and he’s making plays.”
So perhaps the defensive players, the less-experienced ones in particular, had to go through some growing pains early in the 2013 season. Maybe it’s instructive to watch film of mistakes to learn how not to make them moving forward. One need only look at the scoreboard to tell a difference in defensive play. Through the first six games, Carolina allowed an average of nearly 31 points per game. Over the last three, that number is slightly more than 14. That difference is too large to simply chalk up to the strength of the early-season schedule. The Tar Heel defenders are getting pressure up front, forcing bad throws and playing more confidently in run defense. Carolina has forced eight interceptions and allowed just one passing touchdown in the past three games.
“We have younger guys on this defense that were still learning the system coming into the season,” Martin said. “That kind of limited us at the very beginning. Now, these guys are comfortable in the system I think guys are starting to take a lot more chances, especially on the back end. That’s the reason why we’ve cut down on mistakes. Interceptions have increased. That comes along with the pass rush as well. Guys are feeling more comfortable and feeling like they can do more in this defense now that they know it.”
What’s more, the team is playing like a team. Individuals make plays, but teams win games. Farmer said when a teammate makes an interception, or when he makes a tackle, it’s a team victory. The rush helps the secondary get a jump on passes. The coverage in the backfield gives time for linemen to get to the quarterback. It’s symbiotic. And when they do give up a play, they move on to the next one and try to win that snap. “It’s play to play,” Farmer said. “If you mess up on one play, like Coach Fedora says, go to the next play. I think that’s what we’ve been doing all over and we’ve just got to continue to do what we’re doing and play smart fast and physical.”
That sentiment echoes the philosophy put forward in recent weeks, to go 1-0 each week. That attitude of focusing on the play ahead and then the game ahead, regardless of the previous outcome, has the Tar Heels playing at their peak. “It’s still the same,” Farmer said. “Every week, we want to go 1-0. That’s the main thing that we’ve always got to do. Even though the past three weeks we’ve won, we’re not worried about that right now. We’re worried about going 1-0 playing against Pitt.”