Larry Fedora began coaching football more than 30 years ago, in 1986, and through his rise from a high school coach to a college graduate assistant and from there to a position coach, offensive coordinator and, eventually, to a head coach, he has never encountered anything like this.
There is nothing in his past that offers a blueprint, nothing he has experienced that offers a light in the darkness. He is in some of the most unfamiliar territory of his coaching career, North Carolina’s daunting rebuilding task staring back at him.
Few teams nationally, if any, must account for the kind of losses the Tar Heels have endured: their starting quarterback, their top three running backs, their three most proven, reliable receivers and, if that wasn’t enough, three of their best offensive linemen.
The last time Fedora faced such a burden? He didn’t take long to answer.
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“Never,” he said recently, contemplating the work ahead, both for his coaching staff and his offense. “Not to this extent. They said it was 90-something percent of the offensive production left. I don’t know how many guys have ever done that. So at least nobody that I’ve reached out to. So it’s – we’ll see.”
Fedora, who spent four years as the head coach at Southern Mississippi before arriving at UNC in 2012, is entering his 10th season as a college head coach. He spent another nine seasons as an offensive coordinator, three each at Middle Tennessee State, Florida and Oklahoma State.
He has earned a reputation along the way as something of an offensive savant, a maestro of his version of the up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense that has long been popular in college football. Indeed, what Fedora promised during his introductory press conference at UNC in December 2011 – “You better buckle your seatbelts and you better hold on because it’s going to be a wild ride” – has largely proven true.
The Tar Heels’ offense, more often than not during his first five years, has been fast-paced, high-scoring, dynamic. It has been successful, especially, during the past two seasons, ones in which records for points and yardage have regularly fallen.
In 2015, no team in the country generated more yards per play than UNC, which averaged 7.28 yards after every snap – the highest of Fedora’s career as a head coach. Last season the Tar Heels, led by first-year-starter turned coveted-NFL-prospect Mitch Trubisky, finished 17th nationally in that category.
And this year, amid everything that UNC has lost, Fedora and his staff will face the kind of troubling question that might keep coaches up at night: How good can their system be without the players most responsible for its success?
Players who a season ago accounted for 98.3 percent of the Tar Heels’ passing yards, 99.1 percent of their rushing yards and 70.5 percent of their receiving yards have all departed. In their place is a group comprised of newcomers, either freshmen or graduate transfers, and returnees who have been waiting for the kind of opportunity that now presents itself.
“I get excited when I look around the locker room,” Bentley Spain, a senior lineman who has become one of the offense’s elder statesman, said recently. “Because I see a lot of guys that I know are working really, really hard and I know have the capabilities to be as productive as guys were last year, but haven’t gotten their chance yet.”
That group likely includes Austin Proehl, the senior whose 597 receiving yards ranked third on the team last season. And it likely includes Jordon Brown, a sophomore running back who, in a crowded backfield, gained 45 yards on 20 carries during his freshman season: meager numbers but good enough to be the most impressive among any of the returning running backs.
In an ordinary year an offense might have to replace, at most, a few standout players at the skill positions. UNC has to replace essentially all of them, what with the departures of Trubisky, running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan and receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins.
Together, they all formed the nucleus – an especially large nucleus, it turned out – of some of the best offenses in school history. Which players will comprise the nucleus of the offense this season, meanwhile, is for now a guessing game.
Proehl figures to play a prominent role. Beyond him, though, are questions everywhere. At quarterback, four players – incoming transfer Brandon Harris and the returning Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd – will compete for the starting job. At running back, Brown will receive competition from Stanton Truitt, a graduate transfer from Auburn, and Michael Carter, a highly-regarded freshman.
And at receiver, Proehl will undoubtedly have help from several others – but whom? Sophomores Juval Mollette and Anthony Ratliff-Williams are among the leading contenders to emerge but they enter their second seasons with a combined three college receptions, all of them by Ratliff-Williams.
Rontavious Groves, a second-year freshman, could play a prominent role in the receiving corps, as well – at least once he returns from a knee injury that he endured in the spring. Groves, Fedora said, “has a chance to be the next special one there. I really do believe that.”
Nearly a year ago now, before a late September 2016 home game against Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels’ receivers walked onto the field to warm up while dressed in bathrobes. The message, at the time, was that the collective college football public was “sleeping on” UNC’s receiving corps.
It was perhaps a silly notion then, given those receivers’ talent and history of production. Entering this season, amid the unknowns and questions, the perception of being overlooked is more justified, and more real. UNC doesn’t know who will be throwing passes, and who will catch them is only slightly clearer.
Nonetheless, M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, recently offered a prediction about the offense, and about the receivers in particular. Stewart has gone against them throughout summer workouts and player-led practices.
“If they’re sleeping, they can stay asleep all they want to,” Stewart said. “Our receiving corps is going to force them to wake up.”
Fedora commands his offense to work a certain way, and at a certain speed, and with the ideal personnel – with the kind of talent and experience he has had in recent seasons – success has been expected. Now he’s not sure what to expect.
Even with Trubisky, who became the No. 2 overall selection in the NFL draft, and even with a supporting cast that included four other draft picks among the running backs and receivers, the Tar Heels’ offense still faltered for long stretches last November in defeats at Duke, and against Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
And so even in the best of times, with the best of players, success wasn’t guaranteed. The Tar Heels enter preseason practice, which begins on Wednesday, with far fewer guarantees, and with Fedora and his assistants focusing on how they can best adapt a proven scheme to unproven players. That process begins with deciding what the starting quarterback can, and can’t, do well.
“I will say this, that those four guys, we recruited all four of those guys,” Fedora said of Harris, Elliott, Surratt and Byrd. “So it’s not like – you know, Bryn (Renner) was a much more of a pro-style quarterback.
“We had to figure out how to make it work with Bryn. These guys fit our system. So then within the system it’s just, OK, what plays do they feel more comfortable with, let’s use those plays and let’s take the others out.”
The Tar Heels have a little bit more than a month to figure it out. Fedora, who often reminds his team and anyone else who’s listening of the number of days remaining before a milestone game – such as the opener, or against rival N.C. State – knows time is short.
As of Tuesday, 32 days separate UNC from its first game of the season, against California on Sept. 2. And then begins, in earnest, a challenge unlike any Fedora has faced in more than 30 years of coaching.
“We’ll find out what kind of coaches we are,” he said.