Carolina fans got a glimpse of both the promise and challenges of Larry Fedora’s new schemes in UNC’s spring game on Saturday.
Quarterback Bryn Renner threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns on 23-28 passing, and redshirt freshman running back Romar Morris scored three times as the Blue team routed the White team 44-21. Running back A.J. Blue rushed for 98 yards and a score, while Erik Highsmith caught a game-high seven passes for 82 yards. Casey Barth showed no ill effects from his injury last season as he knocked in a pair of field goals and the Blue defense also returned an intercepted pass for a touchdown.
The final margin was not as close as the score indicated as the White team was given 14 points at halftime.
The immediate challenge for the Heels was to play at Fedora’s preferred pace, which is essentially to be ready to snap the ball as soon as the official spots it ready for play. Both teams struggled with that early, as they combined for three false start and three illegal formation penalties in the first four possessions. Then again, under the old regime UNC often fell victim to those sorts of penalties at a much slower pace.
Between both teams, UNC ran a mind-boggling 102 plays in the first half alone, and even with a running clock in the second half, finished with 156 total plays for the game. Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said the staff wants to run 80-85 plays per game, as opposed to the 62 plays per game average last season. Even so, Fedora found Carolina’s pace to be a little sluggish for his liking.
Morris was pressed into action for the Blue team after Gio Bernard suffered a laceration on his head after having his helmet come off during a tackle. Though Bernard was cleared to return, the staff stuck with the heralded freshman who scored once on the ground and twice more on passes from Renner.
The usual caveat about exhibition game stats apply, amplified by the fact that the defense was not at 100% due to some injury issues. But it seemed clear that Renner has picked up the gist of Fedora’s scheme. In addition, although there have been stories of intense competition at the quarterback spot between Renner and redshirt freshman Marquise Williams, the veteran had the upper hand on Saturday, at least through the air.
On the defensive side, after a slow start, the Blue defense settled in and pretty much locked down the White team. There was much more versatility and variety in the defensive looks as part of the 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The defense showed both three-man, four-man, and five-man fronts based on the down and distance situation.
Obviously there has been a massive change in philosophy on both sides of the ball that has been difficult to completely implement in only 15 practices this spring. The bigger change has been in culture and in expectations. Fedora and his staff have lived up to their billing as intense and driven, and while Fedora seems to acknowledge that progress has been made, he has not been satisfied with where the team is at this point. It will be interesting to see if the coach’s intensity and drive transfers to the team, given that the lack of those qualities was a knock on the old regime and the team’s on-field performance.