By Lee Pace
It was a balmy 85 degrees just after noon Saturday when Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora sent his players in from the field after their second practice session of preseason camp. Fedora slipped into a small hut used to store practice equipment near the gate where the players exit for their walk from Navy Field back to Kenan Stadium. One player saw Fedora out of the corner of his eye, looked at him and said, "Chillin', coach?"
"Naw," Fedora said. "Looking for some heat. It's 10 degrees hotter in here."
Indeed, an old-school Southern football coach steeped in the August caldrons of Hattiesburg, Gainesville and Stillwater likes nothing better than wretched temperatures and mucky humidity this time of year. As Fedora welcomed his first Tar Heel squad to Chapel Hill for the opening of preseason drills, he lamented the user-friendly weather -- two days in the 80s on the weekend and a cold front with 80 degree highs seen for Tuesday.
"I love the heat, the hotter the better," Fedora says. "Humid. Stifling. No breeze. You want to be able to work them as hard as you can mentally. You try to create as much adversity for them as you can in camp. You want them to have to overcome something in camp. I want to see if they'll give in. Who will give in? I don't want to wait until the first game to find out."
That's what August is all about -- discovery.
What kind of shape is this team in after a three-month break from spring practice and with an up-tempo offense to execute and defend against in practice? Very good, by early indications.
Linemen like Travis Bond and Sylvester Williams have lost 40 and 30 pounds, respectively. Tight end Eric Ebron has gained some lean muscle mass and his body fat percentage is under 7 percent. Will-o-the-wisp kicker Casey Barth looks a few pounds heavier, the better to plant-and-drive on his field goal tries.
"We're playing at a higher pace now, so we've got to be in better shape," tackle James Hurst says. "Some O-line guys were struggling with weight problems, and they addressed that early. It will really pay off."
"They knew what weight they had to be at to run this offense," QB Bryn Renner adds. "After spring ball, we knew on offense and defense what kind of shape we needed to be in to play our style of football. Everyone took it to heart after spring, because spring ball was so difficult."
How well can the offense and defensive assimilate new schemes? The offense is wielding a spread attack that seeks to run 80 snaps a game, put the ball in a dozen players' hands and do so across every square inch of turf. The defense will rush three down linemen every snap and bring permutations of Rams, Bandits, Backers and Rude Boys in aggressive displays to augment the linemen.
"We play faster than other people," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson says. "Every year we're in the top 10 in plays run. We use every inch of grass -- sideline to sideline, end zone to end zone. We'll make the defense has to cover everyone."
"We might not be ready to beat you one-on-one across the board with our talent," defensive coordinator Dan Disch adds, noting his side of the ball lost eight seniors who were starters or significant contributors. "But they won't know where we're coming from. And when we get there, we coming hard and fast."
The staff and players applaud the carryover from the spring introduction, when new terminology and tempo and packages were force-fed down the players' throats like water from a fire hydrant. Still, everything is pure rehearsal until kickoff against Elon on Sept. 1.
"We're made a lot of progress, but you can't really adjust until game time," Hurst says. "We've not played a game yet. It's tough to know what it's like. You can scrimmage all you want, but it's not the same as a game."
And are there enough players?
The defense is no doubt thin, there are not enough wide receivers to run at Fedora's preferred pace, and a handful of players active in spring are no longer around through medical, academic or off-the-field attrition. A team that looks reasonably stout in September could be a shell of itself by Halloween as the rigors of the season manifest themselves, particularly on defense and covering kicks. That's to say nothing of the handicap Fedora and his staff will face for three years because of scholarship limits.
Asked of those mathematical challenges -- a limited number of players but 10-win seasons expected by the fan base -- Fedora simply shrugged.
"We've just got fewer players, so there's a smaller margin of error with the ones we recruit," he says. "It is what it is. You can't cry about it. We'll just have to get the job done. I don't think anybody cares one way or the other. They just want to see the results. What was it Bill Parcells used to say: 'Don't tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby.'"
The Tar Heels met the media, took team photos and staged their annual Meet The Heels event Saturday, so now all the ancillary distractions are done and Fedora can concentrate on football for two solid weeks before classes start Aug. 21. The team will hold only three days of two-a-day practices, Fedora preferring to take fewer days off and use late-afternoon walk-throughs to install the next day's new schemes and packages in lieu of a second full-speed session. Teams are allowed 29 practices before their first game.
"In the old days, kids didn't spend all summer on campus," Fedora says. "They went home, got a job, worked, then worked out at night if they had the discipline. Two-a-days were a time to get into shape. Nowadays, kids are around all summer. They're in good shape when camp begins. We get more out of a walk-through today than we get out of a second practice. And it saves their legs so they can go harder when it counts."
Back in the day, too, players were denied water. Athletes were told water consumption would make them perspire too much, cause nausea and abdominal cramps. Tough it out, man! That changed when a professor of medicine at the University of Florida discovered in 1965 that water mixed with electrolytes, sugar and lemon juice could benefit football players. The Florida Gators soon turned from Southeastern Conference patsies to winning the Orange Bowl after the 1966 season, and a new beverage, a new industry and a new line of thinking were born.
Fedora labored at length after practice Saturday to remind his players of the importance of drinking water and electrolytes.
"We're trying to get 10 liters a day (2.64 gallons) into every one of them, some a little more," Fedora says. "We talk non-stop about hydration. They're required to come to meetings with their water bottles. I tell them, if they're not getting up two or three times in the middle of night, they're not hydrating enough. I've been through this in Mississippi, and it's all about hydration. Mississippi's the worst for the heat -- it's humid, no wind. But we'd go through three weeks and never miss a beat. It's all about hydration.
"Some of these guys buy into it from the beginning. Others have to suffer from cramps and they get the message. We had a guy today cramp up and miss three-quarters of practice. To me, that's selfishness. We won't put up with it. We're going at too fast a pace to lose guys for one or two or 10 plays because he's cramping up."
The team is staying at the Aloft Chapel Hill, a sassy boutique hotel just a half mile from campus on Highway 54, as on-campus dorms couldn't accommodate an entire squad through two full weeks of camp before breaking for the beginning of the academic calendar. Busses drive the players from the hotel to Kenan Football Center at 6:30 a.m., and there they stay until 9:30 at night. Every minute is structured in practices, meetings, walk-throughs, individual film study, rest and meals. Then it's back to the hotel for bed-check at 11 p.m. -- and that means lights out, feet off the floor when a coach uses a master key to open the door unannounced.
"It's intense, they've got us on a strict schedule, but we've got a lot of work to do," Renner says. "It's just fun to get back out here. Friday was like Christmas Day, we were so excited."
Now if Fedora could only get Christmas at 98 degrees, he'd be a happy man.
This is Lee Pace's 23rd year providing his take on the Tar Heel football landscape through "Extra Points." Look for his missives throughout the season.