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North Carolina football: Penalties, playcalling, and quarterbacks

These areas must improve if UNC wants to reverse this season’s results.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year. College Football Playoff debates are raging, the coaching carousel is spinning, and some teams are preparing for their upcoming bowl game. As we all know, North Carolina does not belong to any of the above mentioned groups.

Thanks to a disappointing 3-9 record, neither the CFP nor any other other bowl game came calling for the Tar Heels to participate. Despite some big time names changing addresses (we’re looking at you Jimbo), Larry Fedora’s status at UNC is perfectly safe for another year (and probably another two or three).

Instead the players, coaches, and administration will do some soul searching and identify areas to improve over the next 9 months. There were undeniably problems that continued to appear throughout the season. Some of them were specific to only this season, while others appear to be part of a more concerning pattern.

For a wonderful summation of the season, please read our own Chad Floyd’s season review. Now, before we dive into some areas of improvement, let’s establish a few shared understandings (note: I did not say mutual agreements).

-The injuries were unprecedented. Got it.
-The backfield teased us with young, explosive talent. They will be a threat.
-Anthony Ratliff–Williams began his transition into a hybrid of Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer.
-In any other season with a Fedora-era offense, this defense would have helped steal an additional 3 or 4 wins.
-The season was frustrating, but it wasn’t as dire as the final record indicates. 7-8 wins is a resonable expectation for next year.
-No, Larry Fedora does not need to be fired.

Ok. Now let’s get to it.


Throughout the year Larry Fedora and the players talked about their inability to execute. (Click here, and here). Those struggles often intersected with a rash of penalties. This wasn’t just a coincidence. A lack of situational awareness, basic fundamentals, and self-discipline often added insult to injury. (No pun intended. I think.)

The Heels finished the year with 93 penalties for 872 yards. They averaged 7.8 penalties for 72.7 yards per game - easily the worst in the Fedora era. It would be understandable to blame the amount of penalties on the injuries that forced inexperienced players into playing before they were ready. This could be especially true on the offensive side of the ball. If the high amount of penalties were exclusive to just this year, that would be a reasonable explanation. Unfortunately, penalties have been a constant problem with Fedora’s teams.

Since 2012 UNC has finished 106th, 111th, 107th, 34th, 100th, and 123rd in penalty yards per game. Teams can find success despite numerous penalties, as USC won the PAC-12 this season despite finishing 122nd in penalty yards per game. However, due to post-season bans, scholarship reductions, and the now-concluded NCAA investigation UNC has not had the talent to overcome constant gaffes. It’s not a coincidence that the 2015 team showed a knack of avoiding penalties in finishing 34th.

This season, the Heels accumulated 100 yards or more in penalties on four occasions — against Old Dominion, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State. Clearly these weren’t just early season problems. I was curious where these penalties originated, so I went through every box score and looked at every illegal play. Just how undisciplined were the Heels?

Of the 93 yellow flags flown against UNC, 31 of them were because of a false start. Basic math tells us that 33% of UNC’s penalties took place BEFORE THE SNAP. Some of that can be blamed on a patchwork line, but by the end of the season there was a certain level of consistency and familiarity. It didn’t matter as they were called for 11 false starts over the final four games - including four against N.C. State.

Additionally, the Heels often showed a lack of situational awareness as they were called for a combination of 16 unsportsmanlike conduct/late hit/roughing the passer. I lumped these together as they are all worth 15 yards and are usually outside the typical run of play. There can be a fine line between a solid aggressive play and a late hit, but more often than not UNC’s penalties weren’t debatable.

The above numbers account for 47 of the 93 total penalties. Simply put, that is an unacceptable amount of infractions and shows there is a clear breakdown in coaching, experience, philosophy, and/or standards. The truth is likely a mixture of everything, but those issues are not contained to just this season. Entering his seventh season in Chapel Hill those failures belong to the head coach.

Offensive Coordinator/Playcalling

The past two years have seen the Heels use a triumverate of lifetime coaching professionals to provide input on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterbacks Coach Keith Heckendorf, offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic, and Larry Fedora have shared playcalling duties since Seth Littrell left for North Texas.

In fact, both of UNC’s previous primary play callers are now head coaches. Littrell is headed to his second consecutive bowl with the Mean Green, and Blake Anderson is taking Arkansas State to their fourth straight post-season contest. Tar Heel fans likely got a little spoiled with those two calling the plays in Chapel Hill. (Check out Littrell’s team make a game winning, 7 play, 98 yard drive in 57 seconds with zero timeouts against UT-San Antonio).

Truthfully, it is not unusual for multiple members of a staff to give input into scheming, playcalling, and other game-related issues. As with the penalties, if this was just a one season blip, it would be easy to brush this off as inexperience. On a weekly podcast, Inside Carolina’s (and former Tar Heel football player) Mike Ingersoll made a passionate case arguing just that.

However, most of us here at Tar Heel Blog respectfully and strongly disagree. While the inexperience again was a factor, that’s an easy excuse to use in regards to the offense. The play calling and game flow has been disjointed and lacked cohesion since the current trio began their current system prior to the underwhelming 8-5 2016 season.

Want some concrete numbers? Last season’s average of 32.3 points per game was the lowest at UNC since Larry Fedora arrived...until this season. Before you blame injuries, consider that last year’s 3811 team passing yards was ONLY 136 yards more than in 2015. AND! the 2016 team accumlated 1110 FEWER total offensive yards than the 2015 squad. Yet, it was the 2016 team that had five NFL offensive draft picks. That seems....backwards.

We aren’t in meetings and we don’t know all the dynamics of the football offices, so I refuse to call for a particular coach to be moved or fired. However, anyone with a brain and working eyeballs can see the product for the past two seasons has faltered. While I highly doubt various skill position coaches forgot how to teach, it would not be unfair to question if some coaches are stretched thin with too much responsibility. Nor would it be unreasonable to wonder if some areas, (Offensive line? Quarterback development?), have suffered because of those additional demands.

Plus, for the love of all that is good and holy, I don’t know how many more safeties and 3rd-and-inches screen passes we can tolerate. Fedora will always have his quirks and interesting play selections, but the past two years have been a departure from his first four years. Something needs to change. A dedicated offensive coordinator/playcaller would be a reasonable starting point.

Pick a Quarterback

Just like I won’t call for the firing of coaches, I won’t advocate for one player over the other. However, a team deserves to have one dedicated signal caller prior to the first game. Whether it was Renner/Williams, Williams/Trubisky, or Surratt/Harris, the dual quarterback system has never been successful. Changes in pace, tendencies, skills, and chemistry can wreak havoc on a team’s efficiency.

Whether it’s his offensive philosophy, playcalling duties, or musical quarterbacks, Larry Fedora clearly loves to have numerous options. Usually, I would agree that having options are a positive asset. However, sometimes having options allows a leader to avoid making an actual decision. That appeared to be the case this year as Fedora hoped that a quarterback would emerge.

To be fair, Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris both showed flashes of their potential when they had a full supporting cast to ease them into the offense. Considering he was a redshirt freshman, Surratt’s final stat line of 107-183 (57%), 1342 yards, 8 TDs, and 3 INTs isn’t awful. His 210 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns were an added bonus. As we all witnessed, when that supporting cast dwindled, so did his performance and he noticeably regressed.

Then Nathan Elliott appeared to steady the ship in the final four games.

Unfortunately, while the team seemed to respond to Elliott’s leadership, he wasn’t the most consistent presence. His three interceptions against Miami were eventually followed up by a 21-45, 2 TD, 2 INT performance against N.C. State. He fnished the season with completeing just 51.4% of his passes, while adding 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.

When spring practice begins, these two will continue to compete and develop. Both will be very different quarterbacks when they take the field in 2018, and with a healthy cast their on-field results will improve. Four-star recruit Jace Ruder should also provide a competitive push as well.

However, the rules only allow for one quarterback to take the snaps. The coaching staff owes the team a decision before the first kickoff. Bad decisions are correctable. Indecision is paralyzing.

Final Thoughts

Everything that took place this season, or that is mentioned above, is correctable. With only 14 seniors graduating, a wealth of experience and talent will return to help fix those mistakes.

However, if you’re still concerned consider this final piece of information.

The last time UNC finished with a losing record, they won the ACC Coastal Championship the following season.

Never give up. Never surrender.

Go Heels.