By Lee Pace
Keith Heckendorf was ready to sign a lease on a house in Jonesboro, Ark., the first week in February when his phone rang with a call from Chapel Hill. Heckendorf had spent the last three years in an offensive coaching support role under Tar Heel coordinators John Shoop and then Blake Anderson and now had moved with Anderson to Arkansas State-but already he was being poached. Chris Kapilovic, the offensive line coach on Larry Fedora's staff, made the trial balloon inquiry: "Would you be interested in coming back to Carolina and coaching quarterbacks?"
"The call came out of the blue," Heckendorf says. "I had the lease in my hand and had every intention of signing it. I said, 'Any kind of time frame on this?' He said they were looking at some other guys but wanted to gauge my interest. He said it would happen pretty fast. So I said, 'Okay, I'll hold off signing.'"
Fedora had made two of three new hires on his offensive staff following the loss of Anderson and Walt Bell to Arkansas State and Randy Jordan to the Washington Redskins. One slot went to Seth Littrell, a well-respected play-caller and tight ends coach who most recently in 2013 engineered 508 yards and 38 points a game at Indiana. The other went to Larry Porter, another seasoned coach with two years head coaching at Memphis State, a national championship ring from LSU in 2008 and most recently one season under Mack Brown at Texas.
What Fedora couldn't offer Heckendorf until he first decided on coordinator's role in mid-January he now could.
"Keith was a natural fit for us," Fedora says. "He'd been in the system for two years and understood everything we were doing. I keep a long list of guys for every position if I need to make a hire, and he was definitely on that list."
"He's as sharp as anyone I've ever been around," Kapilovic adds. "He sat in on every meeting, he knew what those kids were hearing. If Larry had brought in three new guys, the transition would have been tougher. Bringing Keith back made a lot of sense."
Anderson tried to talk Heckendorf into staying-"It took three trips into his office before I told him for sure I was leaving"-but in the end the chance to quarterbacks at Carolina was too much to turn down, particularly since his wife Mia hadn't moved to Arkansas yet.
"My passion is quarterbacks," Heckendorf says. "That's the position I played and the position I've worked with in every stop I've made. I was going to coach tight ends there. That was a big part of the decision to come back."
The Tar Heels' new quarterbacks coach represents this mini-transition era of the Carolina offense-three new coaches, a new challenger at quarterback, an impressive new tailback and a myriad of attrition and injury questions along the offensive line. The Tar Heels no longer have the multi-talented Eric Ebron to snare spinning one-handers over the middle, and the line is at best a patchwork. But there are plenty of weapons to work with and the untrained eye won't notice any major changes.
"We've still got Quinshad Davis, T.J. Thorpe, T.J. Logan, me," says sophomore A-Back and punt-return maestro Ryan Switzer. "We've got a heckuva lot of talent and a lot of playmakers. Coach Littrell came in and we didn't miss a beat."
"It's been more a case of Coach Littrell adjusting to us, not us adjusting to him," adds junior quarterback Marquise Williams. "It's the same system as the last two years, it's Coach Fedora's offense. We're still tempo, tempo, hit, hit, boom."
The most stress the last five weeks has been felt in trenches, where only the right side of the line with Landon Turner and Jon Heck is intact. The departure of left tackle James Hurst was known. The decision from center Russell Bodine to turn pro was a surprise and leaves a void in that key leadership slot. Starting left guard Caleb Peterson was sidelined all spring after shoulder surgery. Incoming freshman Bentley Spain has been bothered by an injury and played only 12 snaps in each of the Tar Heels' two major spring scrimmages. And a rash of flu hit the team the last week of spring ball, knocking five players out of one practice and leaving Kapilovic hardly with enough players for one lineup.
"It's been tough to develop any continuity," Kapilovic says. "It's been hard to get a handle on what can we do and what can we be good at? The first group actually was pretty solid in pass protection this spring. The running game is still spotty. But I think we've got some really good young players in our room and we're recruiting well. We're going to have to grow up in a hurry come training camp in August."
The offense will be without the spark, spirit and elder statesmen attributes of Ebron, Hurst, Bodine and quarterback Bryn Renner. But there's still a lot of ability on this side of the ball, and the recruiting efforts by Fedora and his staff are lifting the talent bar every February. Most noticeable this spring has been the debut of tailback Elijah Hood from Charlotte, a January enrollee who's a denser and quicker version of Leon Johnson from two decades ago, and the emergence as a quarterback contender of Mitch Trubisky, the Ohio freshman with the cool demeanor and pin-point throwing arm.
"I've been impressed with the quality of players here," says Littrell. "We've got a lot of weapons. Our challenge as a staff the next four months is to plan how we can best put the football into our playmakers' hands."
Most preoccupied with that concept is Heckendorf and the quarterbacks. They spend considerable time in the meeting room and on the practice field talking about not turning the ball over and generating big plays-defined as 12 yards on the ground and 16 yards through the air.
"If you win turnovers and big plays, it's basically 100 percent that you win the game," Heckendorf says. "And an uptempo offense like our's is designed to generate big plays We can run 80 plays a game, and a pro-style might run 60. All I want the quarterback to do is get the ball to the playmakers-Eric Ebron, Quinshad Davis, T.J. Logan, whoever it might be any given year.
"I tell them, 'You don't need to make a splash. Your splash is going to be at the end of the game when you've completed 18 to 20 balls and distributed the ball.' Do not take chances, do not force plays, eliminate turnovers. If you eliminate turnovers and put the ball in the playmakers' hands to make big plays, that's a recipe for success."
Those playmakers accomplished quite a lot on Saturday in the annual Blue-White Game. Three months of good health would be a godsend for receiver T.J. Thorpe, who caught four passes for 71 yards and a score. Sophomore T.J. Logan had one of the day's best runs, angling left, patiently waiting for his blocks to develop, then cutting back and going from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye and dashing 36 yards for a touchdown. Receiver Mack Hollins caught four balls for 40 yards and made an alert and athletic fumble recovery, adding to a spring resume that says he might contribute in more than on special teams in 2014.
"Last year sometimes we might have tried to force too many things to Ebron, but now we're getting other guys involved," says Thorpe. "Now it's time for guys to step up. We've got great running backs, we've got long, tall receivers like Quinshad and Bug, smaller guys like me and Ryan who can make a guy miss in space and get a lot of yards after the catch. I think we're going to be a fun offense to watch."
Hopefully it won't be such a noticeable transition year after all.