Throughout his first nine seasons as a college football head coach, Larry Fedora built on his well-earned reputation as a proficient offensive tactician, a strategist whose up-tempo spread had a way of wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. His system usually worked with great success.
During those nine seasons, the first four at Southern Mississippi, where Fedora was the head coach from 2008 through 2011, and the next five at North Carolina, Fedora’s offenses averaged a national ranking of around 30th in both yards per game and yards per play. At UNC, his offenses have set dozens of school records, some of which they’ve broken and set again.
Imagine Fedora’s disgust, then, in this, his 10th season as a head coach, and one of complete disarray for the Tar Heels’ offense. It was never going to be an easy season, what with everything UNC lost from last year: its starting quarterback (Mitch Trubisky), its three best receivers (Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard), its two most productive running backs (Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan).
Even considering all the personnel losses, though, this has been a nightmarish first half of the season for Fedora and his offense, which he first developed and implemented in 1999 during his first season as an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State. Just two years ago, UNC led the nation in yards per play. This season, it ranks 91st in that category, and 89th in yards per game.
The Tar Heels have been depleted by injuries, especially at the wide receiver position, but, even so, week after week the same problems repeat themselves. UNC is having difficulty executing the most basic aspects of its offense, and after a 33-10 defeat against Notre Dame this past Saturday, Fedora exuded a sense of helplessness at his inability, so far, to inspire success.
“I take a lot of pride in what we do,” Fedora said on Monday, during his weekly press conference. “So I do get frustrated. I want our guys to be perfect and I want to put them in a position where they can be perfect. Understanding that we’ll never get that, but what we’re seeing right now is just a whole multitude of issues that we’ve got to get cleaned up.
“The frustrating thing is we’re making some of the same mistakes over and over. And that is the most frustrating thing. But even though there’s levels of frustration, I can’t remember a time that I don’t go through a season without being frustrated. It’s just my nature. It’s just another level. Again, to me, if things aren’t going the right way you work even harder, if that’s even possible.”
After six games, though, a discomforting reality is beginning to emerge at UNC: Hard work simply might not be enough. The Tar Heels have lost four receivers to season-ending injuries. Their offensive line, expected to be a position of strength entering the season, has been a patchwork platoon of players either suffering from nagging injuries, or recovering from them.
There is inexperience everywhere – up front, at receiver and running back and at quarterback. There, Chazz Surratt, a redshirt freshman, has followed his promising start to the season with an underwhelming past three games, though those were marred by poor protection and more injuries at receiver.
So, given all of that, how much can Fedora really do? How much of this is actually fixable?
The second question will likely go unanswered for at least a couple of weeks. As to the first, Fedora said on Monday that he would take on a more active role in play-calling, which has become an easy target for criticism while the losses, and the repeated mistakes on offense, continue to proliferate.
One of the most baffling series of play calls of Fedora’s tenure at UNC came late in the first half on Saturday against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels trailed 14-7 at the time, though they faced precarious field position – backed up on their own 1-yard line in the final minute of the first half.
The obvious move in that situation would have been to avoid attempting anything risky, keep the clock moving and go into halftime facing only a seven-point deficit, with comfort of beginning the second half on offense. UNC, though, did not make the obvious move.
On the first play of that possession, Surratt, who faced near constant pressure on Saturday, attempted a deep pass down the sideline. He overthrew it, though Notre Dame was closer to making an interception than any UNC player was to making a catch. On the next play, the Tar Heels lined up in the shotgun, again, and Surratt handed off to Jordon Brown, who received the ball several yards behind the goal line.
The sequence was doomed to fail from the start. UNC’s protection immediately broke down. The defense swarmed Brown and he went down in the end zone for a safety. Whatever momentum the Tar Heels might have experienced entering halftime quickly vanished.
“Probably, looking back on the play the only thing we probably would have been able to do was just get under center and go quarterback sneak,” Fedora said. “Because we wouldn’t have been able to hand the ball off if we would have blocked any play the way we blocked it there.”
Fedora described the root of the play’s failure as “a communication problem” among the offensive line. Communication problems have hindered the Tar Heels throughout their first six games. They hurt the defense, especially, earlier in the season. They contributed to the safety on Saturday. With so many inexperienced players, perhaps it’s not surprising that UNC sometimes lacks effective communication.
Fedora on Monday said that his own communication is part of how he’s addressing his overall challenge. He said he will assume a more vocal role in the offense – and especially in the play-calling during games. Like the vast majority of head coaches, Fedora delegates play-calling to an assistant coach.
Usually, that assistant coach is the offensive coordinator, but UNC’s offensive coordinator is also its offensive line coach, Chris Kapilovic, who remains on the sideline during games so that he can more easily address his linemen. And so the coach most responsible for calling the Tar Heels’ plays is Chris Heckendorf, the team’s quarterbacks coach who relays the play call from his perch in the press box.
UNC’s method of play-calling is somewhat unusual, with a variety of coaches, including Fedora, contributing to the process. Now, though, with his offense reeling, Fedora said he is preparing to take on a more active role.
“I have been (involved) and will be, even more so,” Fedora said. “Not necessarily in the words coming out of my mouth going to the signal guy, but will be much more involved in when we are between series and those kinds of things in what I would like to try to do.
“I don’t know that that will be the answer but it’s something that I feel like, that’s where I can help the most, so that’s where I’m going to be.”
Fedora later clarified his commentary and said, “I will not be taking over the offense.”
He meant that he wouldn’t be taking control of the offensive coordinator duties. The actual offense, after all, already belongs to Fedora. He developed it and built it and has used it, to a large degree, with significant success during the past 18 years, dating to his years as a coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State.
Yet now, in his 10th season as a head coach, his sixth at UNC, the offense is faltering like it never has, amid circumstances Fedora has never encountered. His job isn’t to fine-tune it, as it usually is at the midpoint point of a season, but to salvage it and fix it, if such things are even possible.