A few weeks into fall camp, head coach Mack Brown has arguably drawn more excitement to the UNC football program than Larry Fedora had all of last year.
At this year’s ACC Kickoff, senior left tackle Charlie Heck said his new coach had already “exceeded” his expectations, and that Brown “brought an excitement to the team” Heck had never seen before. About a month ago, before a key 2020 recruit decommitted, UNC boasted the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class, its highest ranking since 2007. Last week, even, redshirt freshman Ed Montilus told reporters post-practice on Thursday that there has been a renewed focus in the team’s evening meetings during fall camp.
“I would say it’s different,” Montilus said. “I feel like guys are trying to step up. Guys are really trying to work on their craft. Sometimes, I walk in there, and I’ll see Nick (Polino) on the desktop looking at film, or Charlie. The guys are going in before the meetings even start.”
But outside of the hype that makes his promises seem inevitable — outside of the intangible change ushered in by his national championship aura and his inheritance of a state of the art practice facility — what can be said about how Brown’s first team (this time around) will differ from Larry Fedora’s last team?
Based on the information gathered just over a week into fall camp, it turns out that Brown and his predecessor are systematically and schematically different.
Offense: Wide receivers ‘finding grass’
Route running is rarely a characteristic of an offense that changes from regime to regime. But this year, Tar Heel receivers are abiding by an interestingly different philosophy than they have in years past.
Upon review of just the first week of fall camp, UNC’s offensive scheme has been described by players as less rigid, and more based on mid-action reads of the defense rather than intricate plays from a 50-page playbook.
Junior wide receiver Roscoe Johnson said the system is “less mental.”
“This year, we have a lot of freedom to find grass,” Johnson told reporters last Thursday. “Last year’s offense, it was strictly, you know, ‘Bam bam bam; Xs and Os.’ This year, we have more opportunities to just find grass, which means to get open.”
This reliance on player instinct is a doctrine that new offensive coordinator Phil Longo has applied to his offenses for over two decades — and it’s seemed to work well for him.
In 2018, Longo led a top-20 Ole Miss offense that averaged 7.1 yards per play, 33.9 points per game and 510.5 yards per game. The Tar Heels’ offense last year notched six yards per play, 27.4 points per game and 442.1 yards per game.
That said, in his last season in Oxford, Miss., Longo was blessed with a receiving corps that had height. His top three receivers last season — A.J. Green, Demarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf — were 6-4, 6-2 and 6-4, respectively.
This season, Longo has been dealt a different hand: Johnson described the Tar Heels’ receiving room as one with a lot of speed but not a ton of size.
Senior Corey Bell Jr. fits Johnson’s description, at 5-9, 190 pounds. Bell, who is transitioning from defensive back to wide receiver this season, said he is “fully adjusted” to his new position — which is likely by virtue of Longo’s intentionally simple scheme and theory.
“We knew the plays in the spring, too, but now you had three months to work on them, so now you really know the plays,” Bell said. “You know the ‘why’s,’ the concepts, the ins and outs of it — so we definitely go a lot faster now with Coach Longo.”
Defense: Defensive ends in two-point stance
On the other side of the ball, one major difference in this year’s defensive scheme can be seen on the line.
Junior defensive end Jake Lawler said the “schematic look” is different; defensive ends this year, under co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, are standing up on the defensive line.
“I think there’s a lot of different interwoven coverages in that, as well,” Lawler said. “I think they explain it in such a way that makes it simpler for us to understand, and I think they allow you to be more aggressive …
“The defensive end position with the old staff was a little bit more run-stop oriented, I would say. Whereas with this, we go in and out, we drop back in coverage, pass rush, different things like that.”
More is to be learned about why Bateman specifically has his defensive ends in a two-point stance. But the theoretical advantage, at least, is that standing up allows the linemen to have better awareness and vision before the snap, and positions linemen to more easily drop back in coverage.
In Bateman’s scheme, there doesn’t seem to be much separation in responsibilities between the outside linebacker and defensive end positions. Lawler, who is making the switch from OLB to DE this season, said the position transition is going smoothly.
“It hasn’t been that difficult, really,” Lawler said. “I think Coach Bateman and (outside linebackers coach (Scott) Boone have done a tremendous job with us, the rushes and the outside linebackers, and trying to get us ready to play. Dropping back is a little bit different, but we did a little bit of it in the spring. So, I’m kind of acclimated to it at this point.”
All things considered, though, per what players and coaches have divulged in fall camp, the defense has been collectively grading out well in practice.
And a lot of that, Lawler said, comes down to having something to prove.
“I think we’re just tired,” Lawler said. “We’re just tired of the stigma behind our defense, where we can’t play well, we can’t defend the run, we can’t do anything like that. And I think we’ve just had enough.”