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Perspective on UNC football under Larry Fedora

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No, Larry Fedora isn’t going to be fired. That’s a good thing.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough start to the football season. The Heels couldn’t hold onto a lead against California, Louisville, or Duke. Then they couldn’t even get a lead against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The season, already expected to be tenuous before the team even stepped foot on the field, has essentially turned into an airplane heading straight into the side of the mountain.

That has led to rumblings and grumblings from an eager and frustrated fan base. Concerns about play calling, growth and development of players, an overall lack of talent, and losing out on key recruits has led the good old #FireFedora crowd to start appearing with more regularity. Oh you know the ones.

Along with palpable anger, most have:

-zero to marginal coaching experience
-zero ideas on how to fix the perceived problems
-zero willingness (or ability) to donate money to hire “better” coaches
-zero understanding of how hard this job has been over the last six years
-zero appreciation for what Larry Fedora has done

I am not going to sit here and pretend that the coaching staff is infallible. That would be a waste of time. I am an optimist and a fan, not a blind idiot. The program has prided itself on the mantra “Smart. Fast. Physical”. Though, there have been plenty of times that the “smart” aspect could be questioned.

Play calling and/or game management, quite frankly, may never be Larry Fedora’s forte. Curious developments like shotgun formations in the end zone that lead to safeties, forgetting Elijah Hood was ridiculously good in the red zone, and whatever the hell happened in 2013 against Miami for Zero Dark Thursday have seemed to be more the rule than the exception.

And the “physical” part of that motto? Well, if you throw a short pass on third and short (as was the case twice on Saturday), that can be questioned as well. If you can’t look your men in the face and tell them to gain a foot, maybe a different adjective needs to be used. Come to think of it, in six years I’m not sure UNC has ever truly physically manhandled an opponent that was perceived to be equally or more talented than the Heels. I would be more than happy to be corrected, if anyone has an example.

I am in no way a blindly loyal supporter. However, 2017 has turned into something else entirely. The loss of talent from 2016, a more difficult schedule, a second-year offensive coordinator, a first-year defensive coordinator , and those oft-mentioned injuries have provided obstacles unlike anything UNC could have fathomed just two years ago. So, if you’re of the #FireFedora crowd, let’s go over a few reasons why you’re shortsighted, misguided, and wrong. Truthfully, the ability of the coaching staff to keep UNC afloat and relevant for six years is arguably among the most impressive coaching jobs in North Carolina’s history.

Mounting frustration

Before we get into why Fedora has done such an admirable, albeit, frustrating job, let’s get something out of the way. Everyone knew this year was going to be rough. Maybe not as disappointing as it has been, but a losing season was certainly possible. Why so much angst?

Because last season was so dissatisfying. Losing to Duke and N.C. State turned what should have been an 11-2 season and Tier 1 bowl, into an 8-5 let down at the Sun Bowl. Another lost opportunity to beat a Power 5 foe from another conference, down the drain. Another year of rival schools gloating at family reunions and on the recruiting trail.

Whether it was a drop off in the rushing game, unable to make offensive adjustments after Mack Hollins’ injury, or the final play against Stanford, there are plenty of instances that one can use as an example of a wasted opportunity. That makes this season feel like the program is trending downward instead of the hiccup it really is.

2016 did not meet expectations. Got it. Good. Now move on.

Recruiting

This is the easiest area of a program to complain about when a team is underperforming.

Every team has injuries! You have to recruit enough talent and depth to account for those! The best teams in the countries never let devastating injuries derail their season! If you have heard yourself uttering any of those phrases, Florida State would like to have a word with you, but I digress.

Instead, let’s consider the following. From 2012-13 to 2014-15 (three seasons), the NCAA docked 15 scholarships from UNC’s coffers. That averages out to five scholarships per year. That is essentially an almost entire second string of players that UNC did not have on its roster heading into the 2015-2016 season. The spring of 2016 was the first time Fedora could finally sign a full recruiting class.

For reference, a team is allowed 85 scholarship players at any given time, but can only sign 25 “initial counters” per recruiting class. An “initial counter” is typically a player who is receiving a scholarship for the first time. There are loopholes to this rule that depend on when a student gets to school. This also does not necessarily count graduate transfers and walk-ons.

Before 2015-16, Larry Fedora never had a full scholarship roster. Plus, once the recruiting sanctions were lifted, the NCAA didn’t allow UNC to go out and sign 40 players in one class. Those 15 players had to be integrated into the program over time in numerous recruiting classes. That’s how former walk-ons like Mack Hollins and Cole Holcomb eventually earn scholarships. It also helps explain how UNC had the ability to bring in so many graduate transfers this season. In 2015-16 and 2016-17 North Carolina had the scholarships to give, but were limited in how many freshmen they could sign. They had to go somewhere, and unfortunately they could not go to four-star recruits.

Additionally, those players that signed in 2015-16 have not yet rotated through a full cycle. Many from that 2015-2016 class are only sophomores like Patrice Rene, Myles Dorn, Jordon Brown, Johnathon Smith, and K.J. Sails. Others are redshirt freshmen, like Chazz Surratt, Myles Wolfolk, Tomon Fox, and Jay-Jay McCargo. All are major contributors to this year’s team.

North Carolina’s roster lists 25 sophomores, 16 redshirt freshmen, and 31 freshmen. That is 72 players with two or less years of real-live game action against Division-I level competition. The vast majority, obviously, were signed in 2016 and 2017.

In contrast, North Carolina only has 14 seniors and 29 juniors on its roster (43 total players). Only eight of those seniors have played meaningful minutes this season. Two of them, Austin Proehl and Tyler Powell, are out for the season. Donnie Miles, who exited Saturday’s game with an arm injury, may also be out for the season. A fourth player, Bentley Spain, has missed significant time or played at less than 100% due to injury as well.

The lack of depth is not because the coaches are necessarily bad at evaluating talent or recruiting. They literally did not have the scholarships in 2013, 2014, and 2015 that would have added potentially 10 more players to the senior class., and five players to the junior class. (Note: The original post stated UNC lost scholarships in 2012-2014. Instead, they lost scholarships in 2013-2015. This has been updated to acknowledge the change. It also is a stronger argument in support for Larry Fedora’s success and this season’s frustration).

None of this even accounts for the still not-concluded NCAA investigation that the coaching staff had to fight on the recruiting trail. Nor does it account for the tougher academic requirements that UNC implemented, which has caused the program to lose a few recruits, even after they committed. Despite those challenges, their last five recruiting classes have averaged a top-30 ranking and landed in the top half of the ACC

Since arriving in Chapel Hill, Larry Fedora has guided UNC to a bowl game every season that they have been eligible. You know who did not accomplish that feat? Bill Dooley, Dick Crum, Mack Brown, Carl Torbush, John Bunting, and Butch Davis. (Note: In 2012, had UNC not been banned from the post-season they would have qualified for a bowl, been the official Coastal Division champions, and played in the ACC title-game).

What Fedora has achieved are not normal results.

Player Development

Perhaps you watch this year’s team and cringe at the idea that the player development has been stunted. If that’s the case, you must have forgotten just six months ago Larry Fedora had six of his own recruits drafted into the NFL. Those six players -Naz Jones, Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, T.J. Logan. Elijah Hood, and Mitch Trubisky- equaled the third largest draft class in UNC history. That doesn’t account for CB Des Lawrence or WR Bug Howard who are also on an NFL roster or practice squad.

This season, M.J Stewart is one of the top cornerback prospects in the 2018 draft.

Nor should you discount players that Fedora inherited, who are still on NFL rosters. Russell Bodine, James Hurst, Tre Boston, Kareem Martin, Eric Ebron, and Gio Bernard immediately come to mind. They may have been recruited by Butch Davis or Everett Withers, but Fedora still integrated them into his system, provided opportunities for them, and helped develop them.

With only 14 seniors, many of these sophomores and freshmen need time to develop. We’ve already seen drastic improvement in the secondary, specifically Myles Dorn and K.J. Sails. Development will continue as the season progresses, even if they don’t add many more W’s in the victory column.

Early Departures

Chazz Surratt is a redshirt freshman. He was never intended to be the starting quarterback prior to last season. In fact, he originally would have entered fall camp as QB4 behind Caleb Henderson, Nathan Elliott, and Mitch Trubisky. Nor were Jordon Brown and Michael Carter expected to be the primary ball carriers when last season ended.

The departures of Henderson (transfer to Maryland) and the NFL decisions of Trubisky and Hood have forced the offense to speed up the development of those two positions. If you are curious as to why the depth is not available to account for those departures, go back and read the “recruiting” section.

This may seem like an excuse, but those are literally two NFL talents that many fans and coaches expected to be on the field this season for UNC. Sometimes these things happen. North Carolina is not currently in a position to handle those kinds of developments, but they should be in the near future.

Gene Chizik’s surprise retirement also left a surprising gap on the defensive side of the ball. The defense has seemed to finally find its footing under John Papuchis, but it’s fair to question if Chizik’s presence could have prevented the collapses against California, Duke, and/or Louisville. That is some serious movement and lack of stability on a team that was already struggling with depth.

Eye on 2019

Here’s the bottom line. The 2019 and/or the 2020 season should be the real referendum on Larry Fedora’s job. By that point, any seniors (or junior who took a redshirt season) from his first fully allotted recruiting class will be in their fourth season. Any momentum gained from the 2015 Coastal Championship and the 2016 draft class should be noticeable by the quality of talent in the juniors and sophomores on the field. For reference, the 2019 team, theoretically would have:

Seniors: Jordon Brown (RB), Anthony Ratliff-Williams (WR), Carl Tucker (TE), William Sweet (OL), Myles Dorn (DB), K.J. Sails (DB), Jason Strowbridge (DL), and Andre Smith (LB) (if medical hardship requested/approved)

Juniors: Chazz Surratt (QB), Michael Carter (RB), Jay-Jay McCargo (OL), Tomon Fox (DE), Tyrone Hopper (DE), Dazz Newsome (WR/DB), Jake Lawler (DE), and Toe Groves (WR)

Sophomores: Jordyn Adams (WR), Dyami Brown (WR), Payton Wilson (LB), and others TBD.

Those are all either starters at the beginning of this season, current starters due to injury, or players who were/are highly recruited in high school. The point being, the Heels will have a fully stocked roster by 2019 and barring another injury riddled season like this one, zero excuses for a lack of talent.

That will also be Fedora’s eighth year. That’s the same amount of time it took Mack Brown to make UNC nationally relevant, and he didn’t face the obstacles of the past six years.

Every coach has their flaws. Larry Fedora, Chris Kapilovic, and John Papuchis are not exceptions. In a season like this one, they have to call a perfect game just to have a chance to win. In an environment like that, every mistake becomes amplified.

Remember, Nick Saban didn’t know you could return a missed field goal for a touchdown, Les Miles spiked the football on fourth down, Mike Leach already has two 3-9 seasons at Washington State, and Dabo Swinney had to overcome years of Clemsoning.

Be frustrated. Demand a better product. Caring is good. Just understand how hard this job has been, and how well Larry Fedora has done. Better days are on the horizon.

Bring on UVA.