Travis Hughes (left) and Tommy Heffernan combined for five tackles and a forced fumble last weekend.
Travis Hughes (left) and Tommy Heffernan combined for five tackles and a forced fumble last weekend.
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Turner's Take: Practice Like You Play
Release: 10/12/2012

By Turner Walston 

In talking to Larry Fedora and his players following Carolina's win over Virginia Tech last week, I sensed a recurring theme: "We had a great week of practice."  A great week of practice led to a positive result, the first big win of the Fedora era.

I'm sure it's possible that a team could have a great week of practice and yet wind up on the losing end on Saturday. After all, teams practice independent of one another, both teams give scholarship, and sometimes great players just make great plays and the game comes down to who has the ball last. But I was struck by the persistence of that theme of a great week of practice. After the win over the Hokies, it was often one of the first things mentioned by head coach and players alike. Naturally, I wanted to know if this week, ahead of the trip to Miami, was another great week of practice.

"Yes, most definitely," linebacker Travis Hughes said on Wednesday, just moments after an intense two-minute drill pitted the first-team offense against the first-team defense. "Guys are very energized, everybody's focused on what we've got to do, we know the defense we're going to come in with, and we're just watching film and getting better."

"Definitely," safety Tre Boston said. "When you have great practices like this, it gives you a great chance to go into the game and win."

So we've established that a great week of practice is a good thing. How do you know that it's a great week of practice. "Emotion," Boston said. "Guys running around, guys doing 100 percent. When you see guys lackadaisical, jogging to the ball, we konw that's not a good practice. We try to practice like we play, so if we're not playing like it's a game, we're not having a good practice."

"You can tell (by) the energy," Hughes agreed. "The defense runs off a lot of energy, and basically you're just focusing on your assignments and being sound. Everybody's being sound together and running to the ball. Everybody's happy, tapping hats the whole way through." Hughes said that there's perhaps an even more obvious way to determined the nature of a practice. "The coaches aren't yelling as much," he said. "That's how you can tell that you're doing a pretty good job of preparing."

Defensive tackle Shawn Underwood said a 'not great' week of practice preceded the Louisville game, a 39-34 Tar Heel loss. "The week that we played Louisville, we had a sluggish week," he said. "We weren't flying around. We had no energy and things of that nature, and we came out with a bad outcome in the first half of the game." Since that first half, the Tar Heels have outscored opponents by 125 points.

Most football programs have a '24-hour rule' in place. That is, win or lose on Saturday, you get 24 hours to dwell on the result. Review the film the next day, make corrections and move forward. But such a rule doesn't negate momentum gained from week to week. "Coming off a victory is a lot easier that coming off of a loss," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "We're going to build off the momentum, but it starts in practcie. We had a great week of practice last week, probably the best all year, and we've got to continue that, continue taking every rep like it's a game."

With the win over Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels began to see the light, that the work they put in during  spring and fall camps was paying off. All that conditioning was so they could execute the coaching staff's schemes at their most efficient. "I feel like a lightbulb went off in our heads, that we really can run this system how they want it to be run," Underwood said. "We had a great outcome, seeing what it's like when we run it their way instead of trying to do our own thing."

It takes faith to put in all that work without a guaranteed result, but getting the desired result makes players want to duplicate that effort. "Guys (are) understanding that you don't just get through the week on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and expect to play good on Saturday," Fedora said this week. "You don't just turn the switch on, so you've got to do it each day. Even if you make mistakes, you've got to be doing it full-speed. You've got to do that on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, and then it'll happen on Saturday. We'll play the way we prepare."

Down Skipper Bowles Drive from Kenan Stadium, men's basketball head coach Roy Williams often says "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." It's as true on the football field as it is on the basketball court. "I definitely agree with that," Boston said. "That's exactly how we try to practice. We practice like we play, and we try to do the exact thing for three, four days straight, and the results come out on Saturday."

Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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