This is our third installment of Film Review, our weekly series where we break down a particular aspect of the weekend's action to help you better understand what's happening on the field. Here is our first piece on UNC's run defense and our second piece on the read-option attack.
Larry Fedora is in the midst of his fifth season as the North Carolina football coach. Pegged as an offensive mastermind upon his hiring, Fedora’s up-tempo system brought with it plenty of points in his first season in 2012.
The Tar Heels averaged 40.6 points and 485.6 yards per game that season, a level of offensive production fans hadn't seen from a UNC offense.
Five seasons later, Fedora and co. are still rewriting the record books. Many of the program's offensive records now come from the Fedora era and from quarterbacks Marquise Williams or Bryn Renner — unless Mitch Trubisky resets the records himself.
But how has Fedora’s offense changed and evolved since he came to Chapel Hill? We went back and watched game tape of the 2012 offense on draftbreakdown.com, and here are some of the major takeaways.
Fedora has evolved many of his formations to include more wide receivers to spread the field.
Here’s an image from a 2012 game against Miami. UNC is in “20” personnel, with two running backs — A.J. Blue (RB) and Giovani Bernard (RB2) — and zero tight ends. Although it seems like pairing Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan together in the backfield would make sense for the Tar Heels in 2016, they’ve rarely done it.
You can see how this play is a screen pass to Bernard in the flat. It’s an effective play here, but it’s not how North Carolina runs the same play now. In 2016, North Carolina cuts out the middleman and just throws quick bubble screens to wide receivers on the boundary.
This is one major area where formations and scheme have changed. As North Carolina has developed more talented wide receivers, there’s been a greater push to get the ball in their hands. Bubble screens to Ryan Switzer are effective because he’s so good in space, and the offensive schemes have adjusted to feed him the ball off simple plays.
It also feels like formations have become more spread out during Fedora's five years at UNC.
Here’s another play from that Miami game. This time, the Tar Heels are in “11” personnel — with one running back and one tight end — and have three wideouts on one side of the formation.
This is still a spread offense, but the defense doesn’t have to cover the width of the field, since there are no wideouts on one side of the formation.
Contrast that to one of the first passing plays UNC ran against James Madison on Saturday.
Mack Hollins is so far to the left of the field that he’s not fully shown on the screen. This forces the Dukes to cover the width of the field, spreading the defense thin and opening up the middle of the field.
These are, of course, two examples from the hundreds of plays that UNC runs. But it does seem like Fedora has gone away from tighter formations in favor of more spread-out ones — which allow his wide receivers more space to operate and his quarterback more windows to throw into.
The running game has probably evolved the most in Fedora’s tenure. The first thing we noticed is how the quarterback’s role has changed within the offense. Again, this is partly due to personnel — Williams and Trubisky are better weapons as runners than Renner, Fedora’s quarterback in 2012.
But UNC has also incorporated more read options into the playbook that changes the look of the run game.
In this play from a 2012 game against Virginia Tech, Renner lines up under center for a designed handoff on 1st-and-10.
You just won’t see a first-down snap taken under center in Fedora's offense in 2016.
UNC still has plays where Trubisky will line up under center for goal-line plays or short-yardage situations, but no longer for standard downs.
Running back draws have also mostly been replaced with quarterback draws.
Here’s a normal draw play to Bernard from the N.C. State game in 2012. Renner acts like he’s going to pass, the offensive line pass blocks and Bernard takes the delayed handoff for a few yards.
Contrast that to how North Carolina ran the draw against Duke in 2015.
This has the same feel as a draw play, and the same effect, but it’s more of a quarterback power. UNC pulls a guard and Williams follows his running back, who acts as a lead blocker instead of rushing it himself.
Even with Williams gone, North Carolina has more designed quarterback runs in place in 2016.
The last change is how the Tar Heels use packaged plays and read options. Last week, we discussed the effectiveness of UNC's read-option plays this season. And we were a little surprised to find zone reads in the offense as far back as 2012.
Again, out of “20” personnel, Renner takes the shotgun snap.
There are a few things going on here. Renner is reading the unblocked defensive end and deciding whether to keep it himself or hand it off to Bernard (RB). But there’s also a screen set up for the running back, with Blue (RB2) standing ready on the near side of the field. We're not sure if this is window dressing or an actual option off the play, but it’s an advanced concept nonetheless.
This play could be ripped right from the playbook in 2016. UNC runs it a little bit different now — with different personnel groupings and out of different formations — but the read option with a pass tagged on the back end is a play design the Tar Heels have relied on for a few years now.
The passing game -— the routes, the personnel and the blocking — largely looks the same under Fedora, from 2012 until now. One major area where it seems like North Carolina has changed, though, is in deep passes.
The Tar Heels were so explosive last season, and they started to feel that way again as they carved up the James Madison defense. Because Trubisky and Williams are so good at throwing deep balls, the playbook opened up and North Carolina started throwing over the top of defenses for long plays.
There’s also been an evolution in play calling. After practice on Sept. 7, Offensive Coordinator Chris Kapilovic gave some insight on how run-pass options have changed within North Carolina’s downfield passing game since 2012.
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve always had RPOs, and a lot of that was those perimeters screens on the edges,” he said. “And last year, we kind of evolved to having throws downfield off of it."
These run-pass option plays are like the last one shown against Duke. But those were just perimeter screens on the edges — bubble screens to Blue or short passing concepts for minimal gains.
The Tar Heels opened up, however, once they started to throw the ball downfield. These RPOs with deep pass routes added on are a major evolution for the Tar Heel offense.
Here’s an example of a vertical passing concepts tied onto a run-pass option against James Madison on Saturday.
All three linebackers pay attention to the threat of the run. And when Trubisky pulls the ball back, he’s treated to a one-on-one matchup favoring Bug Howard up the sideline. Any extra help that might be there has been neutralized by the threat of a run.
The defense only has 11 guys on the field, and these plays stretch the defense to its limit. Many of North Carolina’s long passing touchdowns last season came off these play designs. They are also a great example of how the North Carolina offense has evolved from 2012 to today.