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March 31, 2012
Slowly but Surely
It's no secret to anyone following UNC football that the Tar Heels are making a monumental shift on the offensive side of the ball this spring.
In switching from a pro-style offense to a spread offense, players are not only learning new plays, but in a lot of cases learning new positions.
"I tell myself this before every spring and every fall camp---don't panic," said Tar Heel offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who ran Larry Fedora's offensive philosophy to great success at Southern Miss before coming with him to Chapel Hill.
"We're not very good right now. I say that with a smile because it's expected," Anderson added. "It takes all 11 guys to be assignment-sound for us to have a chance, and I don't think we've had 11 guys on one play all do it right yet, so we're just hurting ourselves. It's still tough because you're competitive and you want to see guys step up and do better than we're doing it. And we'll get there with repetition."
Where do we begin with all the changes this spring for the Tar Heel offense?
Tar Heel quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams are adjusting from a typical under-center setup with a traditional fullback and tailback to a new setup with most of the snaps coming out of the shotgun.
Instead of dropping back and handing off the ball in the old pro-style scheme, the Tar Heel signal-callers are learning how to execute reads, keepers, and other modifications in the running game.
The UNC running backs are moving around in multiple different spots, while the receivers find themselves spread out with as many as five of them on the field at one time.
Even the tight ends are spreading out and running pass routes.
And everything is happening at a breakneck pace that made the practices of the Butch Davis era---which were much faster practices than the John Bunting regime---look like they were in slow motion.
"It's early. We've had seven days of reps with a brand new system," Coach Anderson said after this week's scrimmage. "We're piecing in guys at a lot of different positions. We've got a few injuries to some guys that you'd rather not have to deal with. We're not very good. But we'll get there. It's just going to take some time."
"I thought the defense came out on top (in the scrimmage)," added Coach Fedora. "I thought their intensity level lasted throughout the scrimmage, and I thought they showed they wanted it more. I know the defense made some plays, made some picks---some pick sixes."
"It was a typical scrimmage in the spring. There were some good things and there were some bad things on both sides of the ball. I wanted to see effort on both sides of the ball. I wanted to see an intensity level. I wanted to see those guys practice the way we need to practice," Fedora added.
Coaches Fedora and Anderson both agree that this spring offensively isn't nearly as much about the Tar Heel players mastering the concepts of the spread as much as learning and being able to react to the tempo and the pace of the scheme.
That means learning how to adjust quickly to changes at the line of scrimmage in for the offensive linemen, who now go straight to the ball for a new play after one play is run.
It means the quarterbacks have to make critical decisions on the fly without the benefit of a huddle to break things down.
It means the receivers, tight ends, and running backs have to adjust to where they have to be at all times, knowing they're going to align in several different places over the course of a game.
"They're starting to understand what we expect. But we're not even close to being there yet," said Fedora. "I'm never going to be where we want to be, but we're not even close."
"The Xs and Os will come as we continue to repeat them and work the drills they'll come. It will take a while," added Coach Anderson. "But the effort and the tempo that we want to play and just the intensity level, our expectations are different, because of how we operate. And what energy it takes to operate between the plays and communicate between plays."
"We've got to get that down to where we can do that with confidence before the Xs and Os come. We want to expose them and we want to learn them, but the effort and intensity and tempo, right now it is the biggest focal point. The ability to play fast, it's not the ability to play careless either. So we're going to be conscious on both sides of the ball, and make sure we don't put those guys (on defense) in a bind."
"The guys have to understand our basic concepts," added Coach Fedora.
"They've got to understand what we're trying to accomplish on offense, defense, and special teams. If we can come out of spring doing that---if we can come out of spring understanding how to practice---then we'll be okay. But we've got a long way to go. If it takes more time for your offense, you've got to learn it quicker."
While playing fast is one important component of successfully installing the spread offense at North Carolina, another is controlling the football offensively and consistently winning time of possession.
Last season's Southern Miss team ran approximately a dozen plays on average more per game than North Carolina did under the previous coaching staff, so it's no surprise they were much more productive both throwing and running the ball.
The spread---or any other offense for that matter---cannot work if you're going three-and-out, so moving the chains and keeping the offense on the field within the high-octane framework of this offense is another important concept the UNC players are learning right now.
"We didn't have a lot of three-and-outs (in the scrimmage). We're conscious of the defense. We've always been one of the teams that's been in the top 10 or 15 in the country in time of possession. We're going to possess the ball," said Coach Anderson. We understand that we've got to keep the defense off the field. If they've had a long drive, we've got to make sure we get a good drive started, and be conscious of the playcalling---when to be risky, when not to be risky."
A lot of people instantly associate the spread offense with gunslinging and high passing numbers, but the Tar Heels are going to run the football.
That's been evident watching practice, as UNC is working in Giovani Bernard, Romar Morris, and A.J. Blue at the 'tailback and 'A-Back' positions with heavy repetitions for all three players.
And all three have found some success at times.
"We can run the ball. We plan to run the ball. If you can rush the ball for 200-plus a game, you're not just slinging the ball and going three-and-out," said Coach Anderson. "We're still figuring some guys out but there have been a few guys to step up and give you a bright spot to thinking that when you do get the system in place and guys understand it, that we'll have a couple weapons that will allow us to do what we want to do."
"I've been pleased with several guys stepping up and starting to show a spark," Anderson continued. "Most of it is in drill work and segment work. We're not real good at 11-on-11 yet to where we can really show what we can do. But the guys just need reps. They've just got to keep doing it, keep doing it until they play with confidence."
While the adjustments of the quarterbacks and skill players naturally get a lot of attention in a situation like this, it can't be underestimated how big of a shift in fundamentals going from the pro-style to the spread is for the offensive linemen.
There's no more 'hand on the ground' every play for the lineman, as they're now adjusting to getting up to the line, getting their feet planted, and then not putting their hands on the ground.
It increases visibility and flexibility, as the offensive linemen can move their shoulders and heads around to see the defensive alignment without putting themselves at risk for a false start penalty as they would when they commit to putting their hand on the ground.
The speed of no-huddle is a unique adjustment that can take time for the big guys.
"They (the UNC linemen) are somewhat (adjusting to the new offense)," said Coach Anderson. "I'm hoping a week from now you can see it starting to pick it up. There were times (this past week) where we got some rhythm, where you could kind of see them (the offense) pushing the tempo a little bit. There's still a ton of thinking going on."
Part of the development for the offensive linemen comes from properly getting the play calls along the line of scrimmage from the quarterback, so as Renner and Williams grow within the system, the offensive line figures to grow as well.
"It's probably an issue that they (the offensive linemen) can't go very fast if the quarterbacks don't communicate quickly, and we're still dragging on some of that too. So it's a combination of both," said Anderson.
"I feel like our offensive linemen have prepared themselves as good as they can going from a huddle to a no-huddle system they've done a decent job. We've just got so many holes to fill it's hard to figure out where to start."