As UNC prepares to open the season on Saturday at 12:30 PM vs Elon, all eyes are on the Tar Heels' new offensive scheme under first year head coach Larry Fedora. Here is what we can expect from UNC this season.
For as long as anyone can remember UNC has used a pro-style offense. It has been in place since the Mack Brown era and beyond that Tar Heel offensive attacks have been mostly attuned to running the football first. Now comes what can be construed as the most radical shift in UNC's offensive philosophy possibly ever. If you are looking for a primer on the spread offense and Larry Fedora check out Andrew Carter's pieces here, here and here. From one of the interviews here is Fedora's basic explanation of the spread offense.
It’s about spreading the field horizontally to create vertical seams in the defense. It’s about putting the ball in playmakers’ hands in open space and letting them play. When you spread the field, the defense has to spread out with you. So when they spread out, they create seams in the defense. Which enables you to have a better opportunity for explosive plays. So there’s a lot of ways to skin it, but we feel like we’ve found a way that’s been pretty successful for us and we’ll continue to use it and we’ll continue to tweak it and try to stay one step ahead of the defense.
In addition to the spread aspect there is the no huddle element which is meant to speed up the game and keep opposing defenses from recovering. Fedora is keenly interested in offensive balance. The misconception about the spread is that it is a passing offense which sacrifices the run. That is not the case with Fedora who believes in achieving a balance between the run and the pass which pressures the opposing defense even more. The intended result of this offense is points on the board as often as possible. That means it is the very antithesis of Paul Johnson's triple-option offense in Atlanta which seeks to consume as much clock as possible. As Fedora put it when he was introduced last year, going to the concession stand could mean missing a touchdown.
So how will this offense function with personnel not recruited to run it? That is not readily apparent except Fedora has said he will adjust his system to the skills available and not shoe horn anyone into anything. However with UNC has returning personnel who should be able to adapt quickly to the new scheme. That doesn't come without some groundwork from the players who have had to make certain adjustments, much of it related to conditioning. The offensive line, for example, was woefully out of shape as it related to the no huddle concept. That has largely been rectified by the hard work of the players and the guidance of new strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. For QB Bryn Renner it has been about learning the playbook and taking the reins of a quicker paced offensive set. The wide receivers are being placed into new formations and asked to run various routes, some of which are designed as decoys. The learning curve has been steep, as it would be for any new system, but all indications are the pace of this offense makes it more demanding than maybe it would be otherwise.
The good news is UNC returns two experienced and solid players in Renner at QB and Gio Bernard as running back. Bernard ran for over 1200 yards last season so the focus will be on him to see how much he can do given he will be afforded more touches with the higher tempo offense. Bernard is also operating will a full year of experience and is expected to be a dominant offensive threat. Renner, who was really beat up towards the end of last season, has the tools to step into this offense and run it effectively. Renner's mobility was hampered a bit last season with some injury issues. Those should be resolved which is important since Renner will need to use his mobility as a function of the offense.
Among the question marks facing the offense lie with the offensive line and the wide receivers. It should be noted these two groups would have been on the list of uncertainties regardless of the offensive scheme. The OL has been under heavy scrutiny going back a couple of years now where the perception is this group underperformed. Doc's "Good, Bad and Ugly Report" often cited the OL in the latter two categories which makes Bernard 1200-plus yards rushing last season a minor miracle of sorts. The OL fell short in the pro-style offense but with the change to a new scheme and reports of extensive conditioning work for the linemen the hope is they will live up to the hype. Jonathan Cooper and James Hurst were both named to the preseason All-ACC team. When 2/5 of the line is regarded as All-ACC, the expectation for the OL is going to be high.
A more tempered expectation exists for the WRs simply because we don't know how they will perform. For one, there have been injuries all throughout camp. Secondly, Erik Highsmith is the only known commodity here and even he has not been thrust into the position of being "the guy." In addition, the spread offense is not just about spreading the field but spreading the ball around so it is not enough to simply have one solid WR(like a Dwight Jones or Hakeem Nicks) the other WRs on the field need to step up. One of those is Jheranie Boyd who appears to have the tools but really hasn't shown it much save a huge night vs LSU two years ago. Both Highsmith and Boyd need to be legitimate threats so the spreading of the field is more effective. At the third WR is either Sean Tapley or Roy Smith(walk-on from the track team.) Both are sophomores who will be getting their first real taste of action which is to say they could be pleasant surprises.
As with any new system, there will be bumps in the road. Fedora knows this and while he demands perfection and solid execution he knows to some extent there will be rough patches. The upside, again, lies with Renner and Bernard since they are skilled, experienced and two of the leaders on this team. Highsmith and Boyd are seniors and there is plenty of experience on the offensive line. That means the learning curve is reduced some and the personnel can grow into the new offense much quicker. According to Fedora, the players are "hungry" and have bought into every facet of the new program. That means better conditioned and more focused players than we saw last season when it seemed like many checked out as the year progressed.
Fedora promised fireworks with the new offense and I think with the returning players UNC has, we will see just that.