by Lee Pace, Extra Points
CHAPEL HILL - Eight seasons of the last 56 in Tar Heel football have been transition years, the passing of one regime because a coach died, left for greener pastures, was outright fired or simply not invited to return. Eight years have endured the inherent bumpiness of learning new personalities, structures and schemes. The results are generally not good--only two of those seasons have been winners, and in both of those years, 1998 when Carl Torbush succeeded Mack Brown and 2001 when John Bunting followed Torbush, Carolina lost its first three games. None among Jim Tatum, Jim Hickey, Bill Dooley, Dick Crum, Mack Brown or Butch Davis could post a winning mark in his first year in Chapel Hill (Everett Withers excluded from those calculations due to the huge asterisk accompanying his situation).
So there was a truckload of precedent that the Tar Heels' 1-2 start to the 2012 season was nothing out of the ordinary. Add graduation and attrition losses on defense, an injury epidemic at receiver, new playbooks in three phases of the game and a nagging injury to a star running back--and no wonder Carolina slipped across that ultra-fine line between victory and defeat to fall short in road trips at Wake Forest and Louisville.
"We're still trying to find the identity of this team," coach Larry Fedora said last week. "Who are the Tar Heels? That's a question we've got to answer."
That resolution is evolving in real time, most recently on Saturday afternoon when the Tar Heel defense corralled an offense-minded East Carolina team to 233 total yards, a 3.7 yard-per-snap average and no touchdowns in a 27-6 victory in Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels stopped the Pirates on consecutive three-and-outs to open the game, girded to force field goals in the shadow of the end zone in the second quarter, then unleashed an avalanche of quarterback sacks in the third period to take control of the game. So confounded and demoralized were the Pirates in the fourth quarter they essentially quit throwing the ball to catch up and never used their timeouts to stop the clock.
"It's kind of like a feeding frenzy for sharks," Fedora said of his team's seven sacks total, five of them in the third quarter. "When there's blood in the water, they start coming from everywhere, and that was a good thing."
"One guy gets a sack and you say, 'Hey, I want one too,'" defensive tackle Sylvester Williams added. "Everyone wanted in on the action."
Two years ago, the Pirates and an offense descended from the Mike Leach/Texas Tech schematic tree logged 347 yards against a Carolina defense laden with future NFL draft picks. One year ago, they slung and gunned for 490 yards against the Tar Heels. On Saturday they were firing with a water pistol.
"East Carolina has a proud tradition of having good offenses, going all the way back to Steve Logan," co-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "If going into the game you had told me we would hold them to six, I would have taken that for sure."
Since that horrendous first half last week at Louisville, the Tar Heels have now strung together six quarters of solid football. They've not allowed a touchdown on defense. The kicking teams have blocked one punt, forced a fumble and tackled a kick-off return at the one yard-line. And the offense has shown just enough firepower when not hamstrung with penalties and dropped passes.
"I hope we learned a lesson," Fedora said of the mishap at Louisville. "It's all about preparation and having energy in practice. How we prepare and how we play in practice will determine how we play in a game."
A microcosm of the new skills to be learned when transitioning from a pro-style offense to a spread-tempo attack is the simple execution of a center snap in the shotgun formation. Tar Heel centers in years past have snapped the ball on occasion to the quarterback, set seven yards to the rear, but nearly all of those were on passing plays when the center would deliver the ball and then drop straight back in pass protection.
Now the Tar Heels run from the shotgun in nearly all situations, including running plays. That center snap is far trickier when the center has to reach-block or pull to his left or right. It takes time to perfect the technique of the snap--the grip, the wrist, the elbow, the follow-through--while at the same time being anxious to step laterally in front of a 350-pound noseguard. Those have been the plays giving starting center Russell Bodine the steepest learning curve early in the season.
"It's all about technique, muscle-memory and repetitions, just like any motor skill," said offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic, who held Bodine and backup Peyton Jenest after practice every day last week to further hone their skills, requiring they execute a dozen or more perfect snaps in a row before they could leave. The result on Saturday was significantly more precise deliveries to QB Bryn Renner.
Hopefully that mindset of teaching, repetition and patience is playing out across the board, particularly on defense. The Tar Heels tackled East Carolina receivers well in space (save for a Keystone Cops third-and-30 conversion by the Pirates late in the third quarter), they rotated a dozen second-tier players through the lineup on a mid-80s and sunny afternoon, and they jarred one fumble loose that turned into a quick six points for the offense. Sophomore cornerback Jabari Price contributed the prize play of the game, a blitz after feigning man coverage on a Pirate slot receiver on third-and-long in the third quarter. Williams added another gem, weed-whacking a Pirate lineman on third-and-short near the goal line and disrupting the timing and running path of ball carrier Hunter Furr and forcing a field goal attempt.
"Success breeds confidence, that's the biggest thing," co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "You have to go out and make plays. No one can give that to you. The good thing about today is they got some drives on us, but we didn't let them in the end zone. We didn't get shell-shocked. It felt good to get off the field."
"Everybody's got a job, everybody's got a gap, everybody's got a lane, everybody's got leverage, everybody's got their job to do," Koenning added. "Since the second half at Louisville, everybody's doing that job better. We've made things a little simpler for them. It's hard to think and play fast. I hope we can build on this. I hope the guys will take it and run with it. I hope we don't have to take the cattle prod out again like we did this week."
The offense benefitted from the return of running back Giovani Bernard, who missed the second half of the opener and both road trips after tweaking his left knee in the first half against Elon. Bernard suffered a torn ACL in his right knee at the beginning of training camp in 2010, forcing a long and painful recovery. Any trainer will tell you that such an injury leaves physical and emotional scar tissue, and though Bernard's new ailment was to a different leg, the baggage lurked from two years ago as he sought to get to a hundred percent in practice the last two weeks. Bernard looked good to the coaches and medical staff--ergo Fedora's comment mid-week before the Louisville game that he anticipated Bernard playing--but Bernard himself wasn't convinced.
"There were a couple of movements that just didn't feel right that I didn't want to risk," Bernard said after Saturday's two-touchdown performance. "I definitely lowered my risk by coming back a week later. I told myself at the beginning of the week, 'I'm not going to come back unless I can do what I could do all my career. I came back today and was ready to play-no knee brace, felt fine."
The bright side of Bernard's absence was the opportunity it afforded Romar Morris and A.J. Blue to display their skills running and receiving. A healthy Bernard now gives the Tar Heels three competent and confident backs.
"I was really happy to see Gio get back out there, see him get hit, see can he make people miss, can he jump, can he catch the ball, can he get in the end zone?" Fedora said, the implication that the answer to every question was a resounding Yes. "The good thing was talking to him just a few minutes ago and he said he felt fine."
And thus the process continues, a neophyte program feeling its way and finding a little more cement under its feet with each step. There certainly are issues that won't be solved until a couple of recruiting classes cycle through and until the doctors wave their magic wands over the breaks and scrapes and tears in the receivers' hospital ward. A win over the Pirates, though, is a nifty way to pass the time.
Lee Pace (firstname.lastname@example.org) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.