North Carolina’s defense had enough problems last season that coach Larry Fedora spent much of the offseason trying to fix them.
But lost in all the attention on the Tar Heels’ defense, and the overhaul to the defensive coaching staff, is the fact that Fedora wasn’t exactly thrilled with his offense during a disappointing 6-7 season.
Fedora, whose bona fides are on the offensive side, recently described UNC’s offense as just “average” last year.
Fedora is being overly critical. The Tar Heels did rank in the top 30 in the country in passing (28th, 278.4 yards per game) and in the top 40 in scoring (38th, 33.2 points per game), but those numbers aren’t quite up to the coach’s standards.
“I expect us to be in the top 20 in everything, I really do,” Fedora said at the Pigskin Preview in Cary last week.
And in Fedora’s first season in 2012, the Heels were – eighth in scoring (40.6 ppg), 14th in total offense (485.6), 14th in yards per play (6.49) and 19th in plays of 20 yards or more (72).
But UNC hasn’t cracked the top 20 in any of those categories in the past two years.
“The bar is set pretty high for us offensively, as far as what our expectations are, and we didn’t meet those last year,” Fedora said.
Running the ball was UNC’s biggest problem last season, averaging 151.4 yards per game (83rd in the country) and 3.97 yards per carry (89th).
Fedora is confident the talent is in place, with five returning starters on the line, a healthy Marquise Williams (Mallard Creek) at quarterback and talented options at running back in T.J. Logan and Charlotte Catholic’s Elijah Hood, to make progress with the running game.
“We have experience, that should help,” Fedora said.
Part of UNC’s running problems last year were tied to the problems on defense. UNC ranked 119th, out of 128 teams, in scoring defense last season, giving up 39.0 points per game.
They were outscored 281-173 in the first half and trailed by at least 15 points at the half in six games. Only Paul Johnson is going to stick with the ground game while playing catchup.
The idea of the defense hurting the offense is actually the inverse of the overarching question with Fedora’s offensive scheme. Should you really be in a hurry to put a subpar defense back on the field?
Fedora is well-versed in answering this familiar question. He emphasizes the words in UNC’s motto – “Smart. Fast. Physical.” – are in order for a reason.
“It’s not just about going fast, it’s about changing the tempo throughout the game to create as much conflict for the defense as possible,” Fedora said.
“Three-and-outs” hurt no matter what type of offense you run, Fedora said.
The balance between both sides of the ball is one of the main reasons Fedora hired Gene Chizik to be defensive coordinator. Chizik was the head coach at Auburn in 2010 when the Tigers, using a hurry-up scheme with quarterback Cam Newton, won the national championship.
Fedora’s hope for his fourth team is that the two sides can help each other and get the program back on track.
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UNC at a glance
2014: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)
Coach: Larry Fedora (21-17, fourth year at UNC)
Returning starters: Offense (10), defense (6), special teams (0)
▪ Marquise Williams was as productive as any quarterback in the ACC last year, including Florida State’s Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
Williams threw for 3,068 yards, ran for 788 more and had a hand in 34 of the team’s 55 offensive touchdowns.
The only problem with Williams was overuse. He was beat up by the end of the season but more work for running backs T.J. Logan (119 carries, 582 yards) and Elijah Hood (67 of 259 yards) should help on that front.
▪ Junior receiver Mack Hollins is the definition of a home-run hitter. Eight of his 35 catches went for a touchdown and he averaged 17.5 yards per catch.
Hollins, a former walk-on, is also an outstanding special-teams player.
▪ The defensive front has to generate more pressure. UNC ranked 90th in sacks (with 22) last season. In sophomore defensive tackle Nazair Jones, there’s hope that the pipeline of NFL talent hasn’t completely dried up.
▪ The kicking game has been a problem since the exit of the last Barth brother in 2012. The past two years, UNC’s kickers are a combined 1 of 8 on field-goal attempts of 40 yards or longer.
Almost as much of a problem as the percentage is that it’s not even an option to attempt such kicks.
The Tar Heels jump South Carolina out of the gate in Charlotte, go 6-2 in ACC play, win the division and reach the 10-win plateau for the first time since Mack Brown’s last season in 1997.
The defense doesn’t improve, Marquise Williams can’t stay healthy and the Heels add another brick to the invisible wall that has held this program back the last seven years.
There’s good, experienced talent on offense and a new direction on defense. Combine that with what is a considerably easier schedule than the the past two years and UNC should bounce back with eight or nine wins.
Newcomer to watch
JK Britt, S
Not the most heralded recruit in the class (that would be DE Jalen Dalton) but Britt (6-foot, 195 pounds) enrolled early and will add some much-needed talent to the defensive secondary.
Sept. 3 vs. South Carolina (at Charlotte)
Sept. 12 N.C. A&T
Sept. 19 Illinois
Sept. 26 Delaware
Oct. 3 at Georgia Tech
Oct. 10 OPEN
Oct. 17 Wake Forest
Oct. 24 Virginia
Oct. 29 at Pittsburgh
Nov. 7 Duke
Nov. 14 Miami
Nov. 21 at Virginia Tech
Nov. 28 at N.C. State
One way to look at this schedule: UNC traded Notre Dame (on the road), Clemson (on the road) and East Carolina (on the road) for a neutral site game with South Carolina, a home game with Wake Forest and a home game with Illinois. That alone right there should be, at minimum, the difference between a 6-6 regular-season and 8-4.
The league schedule doesn’t include Clemson or Florida State, but none of the road games are gimmes. The ultimate success of the season will hinge on the results against South Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.