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Larry Fedora’s Quarterback Problem

Since Marquise Williams left, a key component has been missing from UNC’s quarterbacks

NCAA Football: North Carolina at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The third week of the college football season is upon us. After yesterday’s cancellation against UCF due to Hurricane Florence, there are still nine more games that can be won. Mathematically, of course. As in, UNC has to take the field nin more times, so technically they can be won. At least until the opening kickoff.

If you’re like many (all?) UNC fans, you probably aren’t even reading this. Most of you (understandably), gave up on the season during the third quarter of that embarrassment in Greenville. From the looks of it, so did a few of the players. The eternal fan within my soul means I don’t have that option, but I won’t try to convince anyone that they should waste another Saturday. Until the team proves they’re worth four hours of your time, find a hobby to occupy that void.

Many of you are probably wondering how the bottom fell out so quickly. It’s a common question this week, and there are many reasonable explanations. After a little bit of research, I came to one conclusion that is not often mentioned. Or, it’s not mentioned in the way that I will explain.

UNC and Larry Fedora have a quarterback problem.

Well, duh. Right?

More specifically, Larry Fedora’s offense requires an ability and a willingness to use the quarterback as a dual threat. Even if the QB in Fedora’s system is merely average to slightly-above-average at running and throwin, his offense has found success. Going back to his days at Southern Miss this remains to be true. It is a trait that has largely disappeared from UNC’s repertoire since Marquise Williams graduated. If one had to look for systemic culprit for underwhelming offensive performances, it’s one place to start.

Admittedly, stats can be weird. They certainly are not definitive reasonings for success/failure. However, over a decade of coaching patterns do emerge. For the following analysis, I looked at Fedora’s QBs, and how their rushing numbers compared to the rest of their team during a given season. I then compared the team’s overall points per game, total yards per game, completion percentage, passing yards per game, and passing TDs to see where they ranked nationally. The intent was to see if a QBs rushing totals had a noticeable impact on the passing game. It is certainly not the most advanced method, and there are many (and likely better) ways to do this. Alas, I am a man of limited resources and time.

Fedora spent four years at Southern Mississippi, where his teams were a combined 34-19 and never had a losing record. All four years, future NFL quarterback Austin Davis led the offense. Every single year, the offense improved. In three of his four seasons, Austin Davis was among team leaders in carries, rushing yards, and/or rushing touchdowns.

Check out the tables below. The numbers in parenthesis indicate where the QB ranked on his team in rushing stats, or where the team was nationally ranked for passing stats. The numbers presented for 2009 are the combined totals between Davis and his backup, Martevious Young. Davis broke his foot in the fifth game of that season.

Larry Fedora’s QBs at Southern Miss

Season QB Record Rushes Rush Yards Rush TDs
Season QB Record Rushes Rush Yards Rush TDs
2008 Davis 7-6 155 (2nd) 508 (2nd) 9 (2nd)
2009 Davis/Young 7-6 112 (2nd) 357 (3rd) 3 (3rd)
2010 Davis 8-5 145 (1st) 452 (3rd) 10 (1st)
2011 Davis 12-2 110 (2nd) 352 (5th) 4 (1st)

Larry Fedora’s Passing Offense at Southern Miss

Season QB PPG Total YPG Pass YPG Comp % Pass TDs
Season QB PPG Total YPG Pass YPG Comp % Pass TDs
2008 Davis 30.6 (31st) 433.5 (20th) 241.1 (40th) 57.3 (68th) 23 (36th)
2009 Davis/Young 32.9 (18th) 416.4 (31st) 235 (43rd) 61.9 (25th) 27 (17th)
2010 Davis 36.8 (15th) 453.4 (18th) 252.5 (35th) 62.4 (38th) 24 (33)
2011 Davis 36.9 (14th) 461.4 (17th) 256.2 (34th) 59.7 (61st) 32 (14th)

The biggest takeaway from those years? The passing numbers rose and fell without any major patterns. Completion percentage, passing yards per game, and passing TDs were rarely exceptional. At best, the passing game was solid to good, which lends credence to the idea that Fedora’s offense doesn’t need a generational talent behind center. Just a guy who can adequately run and pass. The main constant, however, was that the QB was first or second in rush attempts every single year.

Even in 2011, when the Golden Eagles only connected on 59.7% of their passes and Davis was 5th in rushing yards on the team, the offense was still among the top third in the country. That was thanks, in part, to Davis ability/willingness to run the ball even if other players were more effective. Either solo, or combined with Young, he was first or second on the team in rushing attempts all four years. It’s probably fair to consider that this was happening in the timeframe when fast-paced/spread/HUHN/RPO based offenses were “new” and taking over the college landscape.

Now, check out the same comparisons at UNC from 2012-Present. Two quick notes for these tables.

2013 only shows Marquise Williams’ numbers, as Bryn Renner was not much of a runner. At times UNC used a two-QB system to maximize both QB’s strengths. Renner’s season was ultimately cut short after seven games.

2017’s numbers only show Elliott and Surratt’s numbers. If I added Brandon Harris, some of the numbers would have changed, but 2017 was such a dumpster fire, I’m not sure we can discern anything from the final stats.

Larry Fedora’s QBs at UNC

Season QB Record Rushes Rush Yards Rush TDs
Season QB Record Rushes Rush Yards Rush TDs
2012 Renner 8-5 61 (4th) 38 (6th) 1 (6th)
2013 Williams* 7-6 111 (1st) 536 (1st) 6 (1st)
2014 Williams 6-7 193 (1st) 788 (1st) 13 (1st)
2015 Williams 11-3 158 (2nd) 948 (1st) 13 (1st)
2016 Trubisky 8-5 93 (3rd) 308 (3rd) 5 (3rd)
2017 Elliott/Surratt 3-9 132 (2nd) 344 (4th) 5 (3rd)
2018 Elliott 0-2 11 (3rd) 59 (3rd) 0

Larry Fedora’s Offense at UNC

Season QB PPG Total YPG Pass YPG Comp % Pass TDs
Season QB PPG Total YPG Pass YPG Comp % Pass TDs
2012 Renner 40.6 (8th) 485.6 (14th) 291.8 (26th) 65.1 (25th) 29 (22nd)
2013 Williams* 32.7 (43rd) 425.7 (49th) 277.4 (28th) 62.5 (40th) 28 (26th)
2014 Williams 33.2 (38th) 429.8 (48th) 278.4 (28th) 61.9 (34th) 29 (23rd)
2015 Williams 40.7 (9th) 486.9 (18th) 262.5 (34th) 63.8 (20th) 31 (16th)
2016 Trubisky 32.3 (44th) 439.0 (45th) 293.2 (22nd) 68.2 (5th) 30 (19th)
2017 Elliott/Surratt 26.0 (83rd) 369.6 (96th) 225.4 (70th) 54.3 (104th) 21 (53rd)
2018 Elliott 18 (118th) 348.0 (101st) 185.5 (101st) 50.6 (117th) 1 (109th)

Surprisingly, 2012 was arguably UNC’s best overall offensive season. Giovanni Bernard’s all-purpose abilities made up for Renner’s lack of mobility and allowed the passing game to flourish. That season may have been the closest thing to balance that UNC’s offense has achieved under Fedora. It led to 8 wins despite a postseason bowl ban. Unfortunately, it’s more of an anomaly and partially credited to the four offensive players that were drafted that summer – Bernard, Jonathan Cooper (OG), Travis Bond (OG), and Brennan Williams (OT).

The Marquise Williams years followed a similar pattern to the Austin Davis years at Southern Mississippi. Williams turned into a tour de force on the ground, while keeping the passing game consistent, if not spectacular. Other than the points per game in 2015, nothing about the rest of the stats truly jump out. Even as the total yardage per game reached 18th in the nation, the passing game was rarely described as spectacular or elite. As the internet says, get you a man who can do both.

However, since Williams left, the Heels have not been able to replicate that overall offensive success. In one of the most frustrating quirks of Fedora’s tenure, Mitch Trubisky captained an underachieving team that, despite having six future NFL draft picks, actually regressed on offense. In 2017 Trubisky, Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer, T.J. Logan, and Elijah Hood found homes in the NFL. Austin Proehl followed in 2018. Our own Chad Floyd took a look at that development last year.

One could correctly name multiple reasons for that season’s disappointment. Mack Hollins pulverized his collar bone. Elijah Hood went missing in the red zone. The defense couldn’t force turnovers. All are viable complaints. None of them, however, negate the fact UNC’s best pure quarterback to ever play in Chapel Hill did not utilize his legs in the same way Davis and Williams did.

The results were obvious. The running game as a whole suffered and the offense stagnated for long stretches. Perhaps most infuriating was that Trubisky clearly had the athleticism and mobility to give UNC that extra dimension – especially after Hollins went down. It never truly materialized on the field. As a result, the overall offense suffered.

More succinctly, Larry Fedora’s offense suffered.

Last season saw a return to UNC’s quarterbacks running the ball. At times it had great success. Elliott at Miami and Surratt against Duke come to mind. The difference from previous years, however, was that the passing game was abysmal. The “dual” was missing from the “dual threat”, though losing multiple TEs, OLs, and WRs to injuriy did not help their cause.

Regardless, neither Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott have proven to be adequate college passers. I’m comfortable saying Elliott will never reach that threshold, while Surratt showed flashes of potential. Unfortunately, once the injuries took their toll the redshirt freshman was stranded on a lonely island. The search party is still out looking for him.

This season, the product on the field is repugnant. Sadly, there are no indications that will change in the near future. The only time the QB run game has been used was in the second half against Cal. It had success, and then promptly disappeared against ECU. Maybe that may be rectified in the coming weeks. It’s still too early to project what the offense will look like the rest of the year.

Until then, Larry Fedora’s offense has a quarterback problem.