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Larry Fedora and the Spread Offense at UNC

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In case you haven't heard, UNC has a new football coach in Larry Fedora. And he's a little intense. And excited. And probably some other combination of the two has yet to be documented in an adjective. Intexcinsed, perhaps.

As press conferences go, there was much worth mentioning. The key comment that stood out to me (and a lot of other people) was his Roy Williamsesque offensive philosophy:

"Now let's talk a little bit about the things I know will get you excited, let's talk about the X's and O's. General George S. Patton said this: `Instead of waiting to see what might develop, attack constantly, vigorously and viciously. Never let up, never stop, always attack.' As a football team, we will always be attacking. Carolina style football will be known as playing smart, playing fast and playing physical. [...] On offense we will be one back, no-huddle, multi-tempoed. We will spread the field horizontally to create vertical seams in the defense. We will put the ball in a playmaker's hands and when you spread the field like that, you create the opportunity for a lot of explosive plays. So that's going to be exciting, I assure you."

Fedora, of course, joins about half of college football in running the spread offense – ESPN identified 48 teams using a variation of it 2009. More specifically, Fedora is describing the one-back spread offense, that grew out of Jack Elway trying to showcase his son John's talent in high school. (The spread itself originated with Texas high school ball in the '30s and some West Coast high schools in he '60s.) The key thing about this compared to a lot of spread offenses, is that the quarterback doesn't necessarily have to be mobile. Fedora's last quarterback, Austin Davis, carried the ball 100-150 times a season, but you can look at similar offenses at West Virginia and Louisville and see their quarterbacks didn't run much at all, especially Geno Smith. Bryn Renner wasn't much of a scrambler in his first season under center for the Tar Heels, and I wouldn't expect that to change; however Marquise Williams and A.J. Blue are more of a threat on the ground, with Blue having been converted from QB to tailback in his two seasons in Chapel Hill. If Fedora goes another way at quarterback, the offense could look quite different.

A lot of folks overlook the running game in the spread offense, but it's rather critical. To oversimplify a bit, every time the defense is in a Cover 2 or has two safeties deep, the Heels will run the ball. They'll probably also do a good deal on the ground with only one safety deep. Giovanni Bernard should thrive in a spread offense, as he has incredible bursts of speed. His won't be able to use his ability to hide behind the line quite as well, as there will be more open field running, but I think he'll do just fine. As will Erik Highsmith, who should get a lot more opportunities to go long downfield. In fact, a lot of people view everything in the spread as working towards that long pass, with rushes and short outs and bubble screens all designed to force the safeties to cheat. And once they do, boom. Touchdown strike.

What I wouldn't expect to see is a lot of offense to the tight ends. Fedora threw to his rarely, and a lot of spread offenses run with four receivers and no tight ends. If you do see them incorporated into the offense, it will be in receiver-like patterns, possibly shallow crosses.

The biggest difference between the spread and the West Coast offense favored by John Shoop is the duties of the quarterback. There's less timing involved, less scripted series, and more reads at the line of scrimmage from the quarterback. There will also probably be less play-action in the red zone, and almost certainly more incompletions and interceptions. (That might make you shudder, but remember Renner's near-perfect debut this year. That's what the West Coast offense is designed to do.) If everything goes well, of course, there will also be more scoring and apparently, a decrease in soda sales.

So how long should it take for Fedora to get the personnel he needs to run this offense? Recall that Rich Rodriguez only now feels the players are in place at Michigan, and that Brady Hoke is reaping all the benefits. But there's a fair amount of overlap between the skill sets of the two offenses. Chris Brown has a great piece up at Smart Football on just that sort of specific recruiting, and it serves as both a comforting and alarming piece in places:

Every system requires you to have certain skills to be effective. A transition from one scheme to the other reduces everyone's effectiveness. The old saying is that changing your offense makes all your seniors freshmen. I think the "fit" of a team to a spread or a pro-style or what not is often underrated: athletes are athletes and every offense is designed to put them in space. Many of the issues come in the fact that with a scheme change guys have simply practiced certain things less.

Where I do agree with it is in terms of depth. A spread-to-pass team has different depth needs than a flexbone team, and in turn they have different needs than a tight-end heavy team like Stanford. Every team wants to have a couple of good wide receivers, but only the spread to pass team needs eight of them; whereas only the flexbone team needs 10 runningbacks on the roster and none of them but Stanford need to have more than a couple of tight-end types. It absolutely takes time to build that kind of depth.

UNC has been pretty fortunate in wide receiver depth over the past few years, and they have a few quarterback options should the need require. The question is the time involved in converting these players over to a new system, and the practice they'll need. It may lead to a rough couple of years; after all, John Shoop has been the closest thing to a constant for the last two years. But it shouldn't take long for Fedora to have everything in place to run the sort of scoring attack he wants to run. And then we see if it works.

There's more about the spread, complete with diagrams and history, at most of the links above. I really recommend the tutorials at Smart Football and Corn Nation.