by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - The Tar Heel locker room was a sea of pandemonium immediately following Giovani Bernard's game-winning punt return last October against NC State--yelling, singing, jumping, hugging. Outside in the bowl of Kenan Stadium, Carolina fans reveled in the school's first win over the Wolfpack in six years by shaking their Carolina blue pom-poms and bouncing on the bleachers to the last strains of the celebratory band music.
In a quiet moment in a back hallway before addressing his coaching staff and players, Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora reflected on what he'd preached all week to the Tar Heel punt return team--"You will make a game-changing play on Saturday," was his mantra--and then what he'd just witnessed, a Swiss watch of timing and precision, of 11 players executing with technique and heart and confidence, a Berlin Wall of protection forming on the right side of the field for Bernard and then the shifty little cuss taking maybe the blink of an eye to traverse 74 yards.
"They believed," Fedora said quietly, his equanimity belying the chaos everywhere else. "They never stopped believing all week long. When you truly believe, you've got a chance."
Ten months later, Giovani Bernard and a half dozen key members of the Tar Heels' 8-4 squad in 2012 have moved on to the NFL. The clock is ticking toward Carolina's 2013 season opener at South Carolina, and in a meeting room on the second floor of the Kenan Football Center, Larry Fedora is still talking about believing.
The Tar Heels have just come in from practice this August morning, a two-hour session that included 10 minutes of a "sit-and-fit" drill, an exercise in which members of the punt return team rehearse jamming their assigned man at the snap of the ball, trailing him downfield, riding his hip with an outstretched arm, watching for the opponent to break to the football, then re-engaging and pressing him mano-a-mano.
"This is a key move," Fedora says. "If we can master this technique, we can be pretty good returning punts."
Practice ended at 10:30, and 45 minutes later the punt return squad members, Fedora and several assistant coaches have showered, guzzled from their ever-present water bottles and reconvened. Fedora has dissected video tape of the drill on the large projection screen and now is reviewing clips of game action from 2012, punt returns by the Tar Heels that show exactly how the drill the players did that morning apply to prime time.
Most noticeable is a clip of a Carolina punt return last fall when a Tar Heel fielded the ball, started to the right, changed directions, crossed the field and was nailed near midfield in the front of the opposing sideline after a 25-yard return. The tackle was made by a player who looked to have been suitably blocked by a Tar Heel on the opposite side of the field; but the play took so long to develop, the defender escaped, trailed the ball and made the tackle--and saved a touchdown in the process.
Fedora hones the red dot of his tracking device on the screen on the Tar Heel who assumed he'd blocked long enough and sloughed off as the return man was dashing and darting on the far side. Fedora calls out the offending party by name and snaps--"You're killing us"--and then mimics the player's thought process at the moment: "That's enough. It's over. The play's over there. I've blocked him long enough."
Fedora pauses, stops the tape and looks around the room, at the 11 players he hand-picks to man the punt-return team and their understudies down the depth chart.
"My man will not make the tackle!" Fedora speaks in a loud, forceful voice. "That's what it boils down to-my man!
"There's the drill, guys. It's believing you're going to get your job done, promising yourself it's not going to be my man who makes the tackle. It's believing we're going to make it happen-this play is the one that's going to win the game. I want guys going out there every time believing, 'I'm going to get the job done, this will be the play that wins the game.' Those are the guys I'm looking for."
It's been a career-long search for Fedora to find and develop the right guys for special teams, those 30 to 35 snaps a game where field position and fortunes change. As a high school and college player in Texas three decades ago, Fedora remembers special teams getting short shrift in most football circles, but in cutting his teeth as an assistant coach in 1990s at Baylor and Air Force, he began noticing a subtle change.
"When I came up, special teams were not emphasized much," Fedora says. "If you didn't start, you played special teams, it was a way for those guys to get on the field. Coming along as a young coach, I remember Florida State and Bobby Bowden blocking punts like crazy. Then you saw Frank Beamer winning games early at Virginia Tech because of special teams. You take notice. You're always looking for an edge, how can you win a game? Special teams are one way."
As a head coach, Fedora anoints a special teams coordinator to supervise the entire operation and then individual assistants take charge of each of six special-team units. This year for the Tar Heels, the coordinator is running backs coach Randy Jordan, a Carolina tailback from the early 1990s who played a decade in NFL, returning 38 kicks and making 64 tackles in kick coverage.
"My entire NFL career was based on special teams," Jordan says. "I loved it. I lived it for so long, I feel I have something I can give to the team from that aspect. I believe in special teams and what we're doing. If you're a starter on offense or defense, you have to be able to play on special teams. We put our best players on the field on special teams."
But make no mistake: This head coach is intimately and intricately involved in the special teams operations. The punt return/punt block unit is his bailiwick. Fedora breaks down opposing tape, develops the game plan and runs every meeting and practice period. He's active and animated during practice, whether it's schooling T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer on the nuances of fielding a bouncing ball and following their blocks or teaching Romar Morris how to slither through a crack in the punt team's shield and extend his hands to where the punter's foot should be at ball impact.
"It's awesome the standard Coach Fedora sets," Jordan says. "Some head coaches will say it, but they don't practice it. You have the head coach in every meeting, he's so hands-on, it lends credence, it gives you the mortar to build on. If the head coach says it's important and he's in the meeting room, the kids buy in that much quicker."
Tre Boston and A.J. Blue were key components of last year's punt return team. Seniors in 2013, they'd get passes from playing special teams in some programs and leave those jobs to younger players itching for live snaps. Not so at Carolina. Special team starters get on the bus first and eat first for road games.
"No way," Boston says of yielding his job. "The punt return team, that's my baby right there. Coach makes sure he puts the 11 best players on the team on that unit. We love it. It's a great experience being on that team, we take a lot of pride in it."
"He makes you feel like it's an honor and privilege to be selected for his team," Blue says. "Not too many head coaches take a specific unit like he does. He's intense and energetic, just like he is all the time. No one falls asleep in a meeting."
Graduate assistant coach Luke Paschall worked with Fedora at Oklahoma State and handles a myriad of duties with the kicking game. Paschall keeps an intricate array of statistics and runs a composite ranking of ACC teams in what are known as the "Big Four"--punt, punt return, kick-off and kick-off return. Carolina in 2012 was first in net punting, fourth in punt returns, seventh in kick-off returns and ninth in kick-off coverage--resulting in No. 3 overall in the league. That was after being near the bottom in 2011.
"Special teams are all about teaching guys to play in space," Paschall says. "Coach Fedora and this staff do a great job of that. It's partly about scheme, but it's mostly about drill work that lets those guys understand what they have to do."
Case in point: The sit-and-fit drill the Tar Heels work on regularly. Looking back to the State game a year ago and Bernard's epic return, Paschall notes that four Tar Heels helped set the wall for Bernard by doing exactly what that drill teaches.
"You put your hand on his hip," Paschall says, "you don't try to out-run him, give him a little space, give him a false sense of security, wait, wait, wait, here comes Gio, now I block him ... and Gio's gone."
Then add a tall player like Boston, whose job it is to clean up one of the larger, slower players on the punt-cover team. On each of Bernard's two punt returns for touchdowns in 2012--one against Elon, the other against State--Boston executed jack-hammer blocks that took out two opponents in one fell swoop.
"Tre understands the technique," Fedora says. "He knows that you can't block a 300-pound guy all the way down the field. It's about timing."
"We practice to be perfect at it," Boston says. "We've executed it so many times in practice, it's second nature in a game. I'm not sure other teams take special teams as seriously as we do. We take them very, very seriously."
Fedora was dead serious last October when he told Morris, who had blocked punts against Louisville and Idaho, and Bernard that they would make game-changing plays against the Wolfpack. Fedora never got the protection and the look he wanted from the Wolfpack to spring Morris through the middle, but he liked the set up for a right-wall return at the end of the game. Bernard and Morris had visualized the plays over and over throughout the week.
"Coach stresses that you have to believe you're going to block it," Morris says. "If you don't believe it, what's the point in going out there? He says, 'We'll scheme it up, you do your assignment and we'll get you there. Then it's up to you.'"
"I try to be as detailed as possible and tell them exactly how it's going to happen so they can visualize it," Fedora says. "I ask them to visualize themselves making those plays, actually see the dirt come up, see the grass on a guy's pants, feel the way the wind's blowing. They need to see every aspect over and over again in detail. And then it happens."
It absolutely happened for Bernard and the Tar Heel punt team-T.J. Jiles, Norkeithus Otis and Blue laying out the first defenders, Boston clearing his guy across the middle, Morris giving Bernard an escort down the boundary. Watching it the next day in the relative calm of the meeting room, Morris said chills ran down his spine.
"We watched it three or four times so everyone could see the details," he says. "It had to be one of the best punt returns ever. Everyone had their assignment, everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do. It worked out perfectly."
And now on the eve of another season, what do Fedora and the Tar Heels believe in 2013?
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.