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Jay Bateman transformed Army’s defense. Can he do the same at UNC?

Mack Brown and Myles Dorn seem to think so. Both have faith in the former Army defensive coordinator.

Army v Navy Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Football at West Point has gone under a transformation under head coach Jeff Monken. After notching just one winning season between 1997 and 2015, the Army Black Knights have posted seasons of eight, 10 and 11 wins, consecutively.

And Jay Bateman had a lot to do with Army’s success.

As the Black Knight’s defensive coordinator, Bateman took overlooked and underrated prospects, pieced them together, and created schemes that gave opposing offenses headaches. At its best, Army’s defense was chaotic and difficult for offenses to decipher.

In 2016, the year the Black Knights really began to turn things around, Bateman’s defense was 16th in the country in points allowed per-game. Army held six of its opponents to two touchdowns or less. They beat Temple, Wake Forest and – finally, after 14 straight losses – Navy.

The following season, Army’s defense slipped a bit in the rankings, coming in at 32nd in points allowed per-game, but Bateman’s boys still shutout Air Force (snapping a 306-game scoring streak for the Falcons), beat Duke, and again, beat Navy.

Last season, the Army defense was at its stingiest, ranking 10th in points allowed per-game (17.7). After an early slip-up to Duke, Army held eight of its opponents to 14 points or less, beat Air Force and Navy, and then embarrassed Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. Army finished the season with a program-high 11 wins and ranked 19th in the AP Poll. And Bateman’s defense was also the only unit that held Oklahoma to less than 30 points (the Sooners also faced the likes of Alabama, Texas and West Virginia).

Bateman’s defense in 2018 finished fourth in third down defense (.266%), fourth in fewest first downs allowed (204), fifth in fumbles recovered (13), 20th in red-zone defense (.767%), 10th in rushing defense (106.8 yards per-game) and eighth in total defense, allowing 295.5 yards per-game. Bateman was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the nation.

While he didn’t win that, Bateman was lured away from Army to rebuild a once-proud defense that produced the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Dre Bly, Julius Peppers, Sylvester Williams and Quinton Coples.

Can Bateman replicate his success at Army in Chapel Hill? Mack Brown, who has returned from a coaching hiatus to lead the North Carolina Tar Heels again, seems to think so.

“I really like what Jay Bateman has brought to us,” Brown said last month at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “He’s got a defense that’s deceptive enough that it’s going to create havoc for some offensive lines that aren’t prepared for it, so it’s going to be fun to watch him. I like what he’s done emotionally with the team. They like him, they’ve bought into him.”

The 67-year-old Brown is back in Chapel Hill after working in television with ESPN for five years. He previously coached the Tar Heels from 1988 through 1997. During that era, UNC posted seven winning seasons, won four bowl games and were ranked as high as fourth in the AP Poll. In the years since Brown left for Texas after the 1997 season, the Tar Heels have just three bowl wins. They hit a rock bottom of sorts last season, winning just two games under Larry Fedora.

Under Brown, Bateman will be the co-defensive coordinator – working alongside former All-ACC linebacker Tommy Thigpen – and coach the safeties.

While Brown missed coaching while he was at ESPN, it did give him the opportunity to tour the country, to see a lot of teams and to meet a lot of up-and-coming coaches. Brown first ran into Bateman during a trip to West Point, where he spoke to the team. Then, in 2017, he was tasked with providing color commentary during Army’s Armed Forces Bowl game vs. San Diego State. The Black Knights won 42-35 and forced two turnovers in the win.

“I went up to Army and I spent three days there. I spoke to the team, I watched them practice and then I spoke to their staff, and I could tell then that Jay was special,” Brown told Against All Enemies. “Then I watched them against Oklahoma and they hold them to 28 points with not having a player on the Army team that could play for Oklahoma.

“I called one of their games (the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl vs. San Diego State) and got to watch them practice a couple more days and spend some time with Jay. And then when you add in the fact that he’s recruited for 15 years in this state and that he’s from Virginia, he was just a perfect fit for us. It was a no-brainer.”

Indeed. Bateman’s 2018 Army defense carried nine players on it from the Tar Heel State. He also has familiarity with the state from being the defensive coordinator and linebackers’ coach at Elon from 2006 to 2010. Bateman’s Elon teams made the FCS playoffs once and he had at least one all-conference linebacker each season he was there.

When Bateman first got to Army in 2014, he inherited a defense that ranked 92nd in points allowed per-game. At the end of that first season, Army actually took a small step back on defense, ranking 104th in that stat. But the Black Knights slowly began to improve, ranking 75th in scoring defense in 2015, then jumping up to 16th in 2016.

At North Carolina, Bateman gets a unit that ranked 107th in scoring defense last season.

“I think we’ll be a better overall defense,” UNC senior defensive back Myles Dorn. “We’re paying attention to details. We’re playing in a system to where we can just go out and play. Jay Bateman has put together a great program for us. We’re learning it, communicating, getting everything ironed out.”

Like they did with Army, things could get worse before they get better for UNC’s defense under Bateman. And unlike at West Point, Bateman won’t have the luxury of facing a few FCS opponents to iron problems out. UNC opens the season with South Carolina, then hosts Miami, travels to Wake Forest and then hosts Sun Belt powerhouse Appalachian State.

Still, UNC is confident in the direction the defense is going in under Bateman. Brown and Dorn are among those who have bought in.

“He’s smart. (Bateman) put together a scheme and a system that fits us,” Dorn said. “It’s tailor-made for our players. We have people that can play multiple positions on this defense, and he’s going to put us in position to make plays. He’s not going to put us in a position where we feel like we can’t do what he’s asking of us.”