A.J. Blue
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Extra Points: Limits of Control
Release: 09/10/2012

by Lee Pace

He's intense, focused, driven and high-energy. But Larry Fedora can also kick back and chill when the occasion warrants. As the hour-plus storm delay dragged on Saturday in Winston-Salem, delaying the kickoff of the Carolina-Wake Forest game by more than an hour, Fedora found a vacant pavilion near the Tar Heel dressing room, sat down, propped his legs up and watched the final minutes of the Virginia-Penn State game. In the locker room nearby, the Tar Heels were listening to music on their iPods, watching game tape on their iPads and trying not to wilt in a cramped visitors' dressing room bereft of creature comforts for killing time.

"We're just making sure the kids are staying hydrated and stretching so they don't get tight," Fedora said. "The officials are telling us this thing should be through here in about 30 minutes. There's nothing you can do about the weather. It's totally out of your control. We told them there's no sense worrying about it."

Ah, the age-old issue of what can you control and what can't you control?

Fedora and the Tar Heels are wrestling with those questions in the aftermath of a 28-27 loss to the Demon Deacons Saturday. Carolina appeared to have taken control of the game in the fourth quarter, but two scoring threats inside the Wake Forest 15 wilted from potential touchdowns into mere field goals, though they did serve to vault Casey Barth to No. 1 among all-time Tar Heel kickers with 55. Then the Deacons zipped 93 yards in 11 plays for the winning score with two minutes left to play.

"If we score a touchdown on either one of those, I'm sitting here with a smile on my face," a grim Fedora said afterward. "When you get in the score zone, there's got to be something that comes on in your mind-you can't be turned down. You've got to get the ball in the end zone."

Certainly Fedora and the Tar Heels have no control over what coach Jim Grobe has done and continues to with his Wake Forest program. A tip of the cap is always in order. Grobe built the tiny Baptist institution better known for producing Arnold Palmer and Curtis Strange than good football players into a program that won 70 percent of its games, an ACC title and went to the Orange Bowl over a three-year stretch from 2006-09. Grobe and Fedora both were assistants at the Air Force Academy under Fisher DeBerry (but at different times), and DeBerry, now retired and splitting his time between homes in South Carolina and Oklahoma, was at Saturday's game.

Grobe and a relatively stable coaching staff recruit far and wide (31 players on the Deacons' 2012 roster are from Florida, 10 are from Georgia and six each from Maryland and Texas), and they make a living on players under the radar of the national recruiting cabal. Quarterback Tanner Price had to market himself from his home in Austin, Texas, sending film to Grobe to initiate the conversation. Ace receiver Michael Campanaro, who had 13 catches Saturday for 163 yards, had offers from only from Wake, Carolina and Northwestern. Bedrock nose guard Nikita Whitlock accepted his Wake Forest scholarship offer on the spot as Portland State was his best alternative option. After a 3-9 stumble in 2010 when they were caught playing too many freshmen and sophomores on defense, the Deacons have matured and re-emerged as a tough, smart team that relies on misdirection on offense and the blanket of a 3-4 zone concept on defense.

"Give Wake Forest credit," Fedora said. "It was a typical game for them-playing hard, minimal mistakes and capitalizing on the mistakes of the opposing team."

Fedora also cannot control how the human body reacts to the stress of the game. Giovani Bernard was held out of the second half of last week's opening win over Elon as a precautionary measure. He practiced last week and Fedora said he believed Bernard would play against Wake Forest. But Bernard told the coaches and medical staff before the game he didn't think his mobility was a hundred percent, so they decided to rest him and instead rotate A.J. Blue and Romar Morris at running back.

"When Gio got out there, it just didn't feel right," Fedora said. "As a running back, if you don't have your wheels, particularly a back like Gio, you can't do much. I'm hoping he'll be ready to go this week."

What the Tar Heels can control, however, are their fundamentals, their discipline, their attention to assignments and details. The coaches can be patient and continue to teach and drill the skills into players doing them for the first time in Fedora's schemes and/or at this level of college football. Last week's opening 62-0 romp over Elon served a more useful purpose than staging another intra-squad scrimmage, while the Wake Forest game was the first true test of Fedora's program against quality competition.

Asked about the mood of the team, offensive guard Jonathan Cooper answered, "Surprisingly positive.

"We understand what went wrong," he continued. "We're not going to change a thing. We're going to have an off-day Monday. We're going to work hard Tuesday. We're going to work hard Wednesday. We're going to polish Thursday. Coach Fedora doesn't feel we have to change a thing. We just have to fix mistakes, and we'll be all right."

One case in point: When punt return specialists T.J. Thorpe and Reggie Wilkins were hurt in August and Bernard dinged versus Elon, the Tar Heels turned to Roy Smith, a newcomer to the football team. Smith played football and was a state champion hurdler at Miami Northwestern High. He came to Carolina to run track, but missed football while watching from the stands for two years. He approached Fedora in April about walking-on the football team. He was given an opportunity and has made the most of it, playing back-up receiver and working with the return teams. He averaged 21 yards on six returns against Elon and against Wake Forest had three more for 28 yards.

"I was nervous my first time out there," Smith said. "I'd not played in a football game in three years, never played in front of that many people. I just tried to take deep breaths. I looked to the sideline and coach Fedora said to calm down and look the ball into my hands. I settled down after the first one."

Saturday, though, Smith's lack of recent football reps caught up as he was nearly grazed by the ball at about the one yard-line after he let a punt bounce. Smith was met at the sideline by assistant coach Gunter Brewer and Fedora and reminded in high decibels of the urgency of getting out of Dodge if you're not going to field the punt.

But there are challenges like that across the board. Center Russell Bodine, after an opener that included 19 knock-down blocks, was snapping the ball in all manner of inconvenient places to QB Bryn Renner. A better block here and there might have sprung Blue or Morris for a first down or touchdown. Carolina had eight penalties for 87 yards, including one that gave Wake Forest a second chance at an end-of-the-half field goal (fortunately missed by the Deacons).

The defensive line is looking for the right combination of players around Sylvester Williams, and the defensive coaches are digging deep into their roster reservoir, now using walk-ons or former walk-ons Tommy Heffernan, Pete Mangum and Jeff Schoettmer in various nickel and dime packages. The secondary, while showing promise with some aggressive moves by cornerbacks Tim Scott and Jabari Price, has to improve its reads and reactions at game speed. The Tar Heels allowed three of six third-down conversions to Wake Forest in the first half, helping the Deacons to three touchdown drives. Sam Smiley, a high school quarterback in Florida two years ago is learning to play safety from scratch and was beaten one-on-one by Josh Harris on a Deacon touchdown.

"We didn't completely do our assignments right," Scott said. "We were messing up on the little things. That was where they were hurting us the first half."

Scott made a perfect read on a third-quarter play-action pass by Price, intercepting the ball at the Wake Forest 24 and returning it 16 yards to the eight. Emblematic of the details that went awry for the Tar Heels, though, was the fact that with a quick burst to his right, Scott could easily have notched six points.

"We would have had a defensive touchdown," Scott lamented afterward. "That's a big goal of our's, scoring on defense."

Fedora and the Tar Heels now process the ups and downs of the first two weeks and travel to Louisville for a stern test against a Cardinal team that has soundly beaten Kentucky and Missouri State. Carolina edged the Cardinals by seven points last year, but Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater is now a sophomore and the team won't be stressed as it was a year ago by the game-week firing of its offensive coordinator. It's a busy week indeed for the Tar Heels, as they pray for the wisdom to know which things they can and cannot control.

Lee Pace (leepace7@gmail.com) is in his 23rd Tar Heel football season writing "Extra Points" and ninth reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network.

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