UNC football departures leave Fedora with his toughest test
If the North Carolina football team’s head coach, Larry Fedora, coached your intramural flag football team, would you automatically win the championship?
Your team isn’t starting from scratch. You’ve got plenty of talent, but not much in the way of experience.
Fedora would install plays and provide structure to your offense. He would know how to get the ball to your best athlete. His playbook and route combinations would open up holes in the other team’s defense.
He’d simplify the playbook for your quarterback and tailor the offense around throws he could make. Some fun trick plays would cover up some of the deficiencies in your offense.
He wouldn't fret too much about your team's defense, knowing that you'd only need to hold the opponent to one less point than your offense.
All in all, your team would probably be pretty good.
This is what Fedora does. He’s dedicated his entire adult life to coaching and studying football. He graduated from Austin College in 1985 and started as a graduate assistant there in 1986. The next year, he coached at Garland (Texas) High School, and he’s been working full time ever since — with stops at Baylor, Florida and Oklahoma State and a head coaching job at Southern Miss.
In coaching circles, Fedora is known as an offensive mastermind. He has his own brand of the spread offense, a balanced attack that forces the defense to decide where the football goes. UNC has showcased it the past five seasons to great success.
His offenses also mold to the talents working within them: run-heavy for Giovani Bernard, zone reads for Marquise Williams, tossing the keys to the whole thing to Mitch Trubisky in 2016. But Trubisky, Ryan Switzer, Elijah Hood and a host of other offensive pieces he’s built around in the past have graduated or declared for the NFL Draft.
In 2017, fans will figure out if all the offensive success was a result of Fedora’s genius or talented players. It sets up like a well-controlled seventh-grade science experiment: One variable — the reliable offensive skill position talent — is gone. All that remains is the mastermind, Fedora.
Of course, the 2017 Tar Heel offense will have some talent. Make flashcards and start learning the names now: quarterbacks Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt; running back Jordon Brown; wide receivers Jordan Cunningham, Thomas Jackson and Anthony Ratliff-Williams. And don’t forget about receiver Austin Proehl, who finished third on the team last season in catches and receiving yards.
This new MASH unit will rally around being underdogs, catching people sleeping on them. They will run out of printer money collecting all the articles and tweets of people counting them out. In 2016, North Carolina played its best as an underdog (wins over Florida State and Miami) and struggled with expectations (see losses to Georgia, Duke and N.C. State). Maybe flying under the radar and surprising people will translate to great success.
But it’s also a reality that in 2017, UNC will return 1.7 percent of its passing yards, 0.9 percent of its rushing yards and 29.4 percent of its receiving yards from last season. Gone are starting quarterback Trubisky, running backs Hood, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis. Gone are wide receivers Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard, offensive linemen Caleb Peterson, John Ferranto and Jon Heck.
It’s the kind of doomsday scenario that keeps football coaches up at night.
The defense, led by linebacker Andre Smith and cornerback M.J. Stewart in 2017, will have to be amazing. But North Carolina conceded 24.9 points per game to opponents last season. After defensive tackle Naz Jones' departure to the NFL, how much better can they really be?
Maybe this whole situation excites Fedora: the opportunity to start fresh, sculpt a Vitruvian offense from the ground up with raw underclassmen.
Fedora has been at UNC for five years, so in theory, he’s been recruiting players who fit his system for years now. He can’t make the same excuses that, for example, a first-year head coach could make about lack of system fit.
He has spring practices, summer workouts and training camp to build another great offense with his talented, yet inexperienced skill position players.
It’s not like Fedora taking over as the head coach of your intramural flag football team. But ready or not, the onus falls on his shoulders.