The 2016 football season came to a close in El Paso for North Carolina. The Sun Bowl was a hard-fought bowl game with the Tar Heels falling one play short to Stanford, 25-23. It was not the result head coach Larry Fedora wanted, and you could tell by the emotions on the field afterwards that his players wanted to win this game badly.
When bowl games end, it’s a time for programs to say goodbye to their seniors. This year's senior class helped get the program back on its feet and raised the expectations of what fans, players and coaches expect to see on the field. Senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said it best afterwards, “It’s not effort and attitude like it used to be. It’s been night and day since my sophomore year. I think all of these guys can attest to that. As long as Fedora is here and these coaches, this program is going to go in the right direction and continue to recruit guys with great character and great ability.”
Here’s what coach Fedora had to say in this season’s final “Five with Fedora.” In the spirit of the gluttony that is the Holiday season, there are some extra questions and answers beyond the normal five.
1. Looking back at the bowl game, did Stanford disguise some coverages in a way that Mitch hadn’t seen before on film? – “We probably prepared for more things than they ended up showing. Stanford spent more time in a one-robber coverage, which is something we had prepared for in practice. Mitch made some big plays for us in the game, particularly on the last drive. The pick-six interception was on a blitz that he recognized, but he just went to the wrong guy on the pass. It’s one of our base plays that we run so I don’t think it was a situation where he didn’t recognize the coverage. He just made the wrong read and throw. He had a few critical mistakes in this game that he usually doesn’t make. But he’ll learn from it and get better. Mitch would tell you the same thing because he’s his toughest critic.”
2. Lost in the shuffle in the postgame analysis was the strong performance of your defense in stopping the run. How would you rate their performance and is it something they can build off of in the offseason? – “The defense got better as the year went on. If you look at the month of November our defense was holding people to about 20 points-per-game (top 25 in the nation), which was a major improvement from the first month of the season (30 points-per-game). Even in the bowl game, where I thought they definitely played well enough for us to win that game, they held Stanford to 19 points (six of the 25 were on the interception), and some of those were due to our offense putting them in short field situations from turnovers. But they held strong and held them to field goals. What I think our defense can build off of from that game is seeing that it’s not always just X’s and O’s in scheming to stop the run. It’s being physical enough to take on and get off those blocks and make those initial tackles at the point of contact. Our defense held an offense that was averaging 300-plus yards rushing per game in November to 129 yards in this game. Fifty-nine of those yards came on one run. Our guys stepped up and played a physical brand of defense. The guys on our roster now have been growing up in this system the last two seasons and are seeing what that transformation, in terms of changing the physicality, can do in the form of results on the field. A lot of those guys are coming back and will be able to look at this game as an example of that.”
3. After the bowl game do you let some time pass to decompress for a bit, or were you already looking forward to next season? – “I was already thinking about our next step and what we have to do to get better. First, you’re looking back at the season you just had and analyzing what you think went wrong and how to correct those issues before next season. Then you’re looking at where the team grew and how to build on that aspect as well. I was doing that on the flight home. I’ve got a list that I’m making throughout the season and you’re constantly adding to it for things we have to get done in the spring and in the offseason to get better. Your team is built in the offseason and you have to have that plan ready before the spring practices begin. One area I think is imperative to focus on is being a physical football team and continuing to increase our physicality as I mentioned before with the defense. To do that you have to be physical in practice and in everything you do and there’s a balance there you have to find in accomplishing that goal. You don’t want guys to get hurt but you have to build that physical mentality in practice. It won’t just happen if you wait until Saturday to do it.”
4. Are you able to appreciate or enjoy the bowl week experience, or does the loss ruin that for you personally? – “It’s hard for me, personally, to look back and feel like I enjoyed it because we lost. I’m ok having that feeling. I don’t want to ever enjoy an experience that involved losing a game. That’s just who I am. I’ve never been in a bowl game that didn’t mean anything. It’s another chance to step onto the field and compete. It’s the last time you get to step on the field with a lot of the guys on your team. Many of them will be taking off a football helmet for the last time in their lives when that game is over. After losing this game all you had to do was walk into our locker room and see for yourself if this bowl game meant something to our guys or not. It was somber. There were a lot of tears shed. They know that was the last time that this particular team would ever take the field together. We wanted to win this game and it hurts to lose it. But I think the families had a great week and the Sun Bowl people do put on an awesome week for the programs and their families. The hospitality was unbelievable all week. I’m glad they all enjoyed it because that is important to me. I want our guys to have great experiences during their career and our families deserve trips like this one. That doesn’t mean I had to enjoy it.”
5. Looking back at how the offense performed, what is your evaluation on how the season went? – “We had some really good moments on offense and then some not-so-good moments. I’m not happy with the way our offense played in November. There were too many points left on the field that we should have scored. I have to be realistic in being too critical of the situation. I have to go back and really evaluate how losing one of our top wideouts, our top offensive lineman and our top running back affected what we were trying to accomplish on offense. You can’t just ignore those factors in evaluating the performance of the offense. In terms of the process and procedures of how we ran the offense, I have no problems with our system.
Bonus 1. A few days after the game it was announced that defensive line coach Tray Scott was taking a job at Ole Miss. What does the process look like in how you’ll go about hiring a new defensive line coach? – “The entire staff and I will put a list of guys together. There will be input from everybody on who we should look at and who we should talk to in this process. Then the defensive coaches will do 90 percent of the interview process. I’ll obviously spend time with every candidate but it’s the defensive staff that will evaluate it and give me their recommendations. They have to have ownership in that decision because they’re going to be the ones who spend the most time with that coach. He has to fit in with that staff room and what we want to do. That process has already started.”
Bonus 2. Do you watch many of the bowl games? – “I try to watch the bowl games. Not all of them and not all of each one I watch, but I do watch them. I try and watch all the games with ACC teams in them. The Rose Bowl was obviously a great one to watch. I was surprised that there wasn’t more defense in that game, but it was impressive to watch both of those teams answer the bell each time on offense right up until the end. I also thought the Orange Bowl was a heck of a game. I think it showed that Florida State had a great team this year. The Clemson defense was so dominant in their first playoff game too. I think they have a real chance to win it all.”
Bonus 3. What is your favorite moment or play when you look back at this season? – “Twenty-three seconds at the end of the game against a really good Florida State team. We’re behind on the road. I’m waiting to see how our guys will respond to the changes in momentum in that game that led to that point at the end. We complete two passes and hit a 54-yard field goal. Watching the way our guys responded to that situation was pretty special. That’s a moment I won’t forget.”