When Larry Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill, he brought with him schemes that would totally make over the Tar Heel offense and defense. The fast-paced spread is a departure from the pro-style offense of previous seasons, and the 4-2-5 defense introduced two new positions entirely. It's a lot to learn in a single spring and fall training camp, especially for a roster of players that was primarily built and recruited for the old systems.
So, after the initial install periods, how does a team still new to the schemes adjust the game plan week to week? Keep it simple. "You cut it down," Fedora said Wednesday. "You just keep cutting the game plan down, down and down, and eventually there's not much there and you just play ball."
For any team implementing a new system, there's a necessary transition period where the players are thinking too much, where they are still learning where to be and when. In other words, in order for something to eventually be instinctive, it must be practiced constantly and consistently. For this team, training camp was used to install everything they might use during the season, even if not everything is will be used every Saturday. "In training camp, you install your whole playbook," junior defensive end Kareem Martin said. "Each week, depending on the team we'll play, we'll pull plays that we've installed already and touch them up a little bit to cater to the team that we're playing, and we'll go from there."
That means re-running plays that haven't been seen since camp. "In training camp, we got so many reps of each play that it was like second nature to you," Martin said. "So now we come back in and we just refresh ourselves on it, and it's just like you were running it the week before, when you really ran it a month ago. The fact that we installed it so heavy in training camp makes it a little easier."
The process of preparation doesn't all take place on the practice field. There's film study, both of your own team and your upcoming opponent, of game film and the week's practice. "Sundays we watch ourselves," Martin said. "You clean up mistakes from the game you played Saturday. When we watch Louisville, that's more so you can get a feel for how they run their stuff." While the Tar Heels' scout team will try to replicate the week's opponent as best as they can, they naturally won't provide a look as good as the one shown by the players recruited for and playing in the system. So studying that team in live game action is invaluable. "You're basically just studying your opponent, getting ready for what you're going to see Saturday, moreso than what you're going to see at practice."
On Monday, Fedora said the Tar Heel coaches identified 25 missed defensive assignments from Saturday's game at Wake Forest. For a one-point loss, that statistic looks particularly painful. But regardless, the team can't let the Demon Deacons continue to beat them."We understood that we made too many mistakes," junior nose tackle Tim Jackson said. "We definitely beat ourselves. Wake Forest did a good job of capitalizing on our mistakes so we know that facing this team this week, if we make the same mistakes, the outcome is going to be the same, so we don't want to feel that same despair of a loss. We're going to be prepared."
The key to that preparation is compartmentalization. Every step in the process serves its own purpose. "You look at the film on Sunday, and you wipe it clean," Jackson said. "You get ready for the next week, and that's all you focus on. The key to not getting overwhelmed is just taking it day by day, so Tuesday we look at film for Louisville, we hit the practice field. Wednesday, we look at Tuesday's practice film and we shift our focus back to Louisville. So it's all about focusing on one thing at a time."
Freshman cornerback T.J. Jiles has seen action in both games this season and should continue to contribute in the secondary. He said part of playing college football is understanding what you need and don't need from the playbook week to week. "You've just got to kind of take it in, and the things you don't use, you kind of just let it fly by," he said.. But you've got to really get the key points and kind of focus in on everything."Jiles said it's not hard to pick back up on coverages installed weeks ago. "It's like riding a bike," he said. "You never forget."
Fedora said his coaches and players have learned from the mistakes made in Saturday's loss and now move forward for the tough test on the road at Louisville. "We've made the corrections, and now there's new things that go in," he said. "So it's not the same game plan. It's totally new." As of Wednesday, the team was still in the process of determining what to leave in and what to take out of the game plan. Will it be effective? "The proof will be in the pudding Saturday whether we have those missed assignments or not."