The UNC offense moved at a quick pace on Saturday against Elon -- but not quick enough for coach Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. PHOTO: Robert Willett
CHAPEL HILL — If you’ve read even a little this week about North Carolina football, you’ve probably seen the word “tempo” or time or two. Or “pace.” Whichever. They both refer to the same thing: the speed of the Tar Heels’ offense.
Not necessarily the speed of running back Giovani Bernard or receiver Erik Highsmith or any other player. But the speed of the offense as a whole, related to how quickly it moves from one play to the next. The Tar Heels were fast in that 62-0 season-opening victory against Elon.
But not fast enough. At least, not according to coach Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson.
UNC ran 74 plays against Elon. That’s about 12 more than what the Heels averaged per game a season ago. And almost exactly what Fedora’s offense at Southern Miss averaged per game last season. Even so, Fedora and Anderson said earlier this week that the Heels lagged between plays on Saturday.
Fedora’s version of the spread offense is, of course, built on speed. During plays, yes – but especially between plays. The offense is at its best when the end of one play transitions seamlessly into the beginning of the next, a scenario that could leave a defense out of breath, exhausted and, perhaps, with the wrong personnel on the field.
UNC worked hard in the spring and during the preseason at installing the spread. The players worked hard on pacing. But before the season began, I wondered if UNC would ever reach the desired pace during this first season of a completely new system.
Would it be possible? I posed the question earlier this week to Anderson. Is it going to be possible, I ask, for the offense to reach the desired pace in just once season? Or will it take longer than that?
“I don’t know that we’ll ever get there,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because I just always think we can play faster.”
Obviously, the number of offensive plays a team runs isn’t always indicative of its pace. The number of plays is dependent on the number of possessions, which is dependent on how well the defense does at stopping the other team. A lower number of plays could also represent a lot of short possessions, which could either mean multiple three-and-outs or multiple scoring drives that lasted four plays or next.
But, generally, the more plays, the faster the pace. Ideally, Fedora would like to see about 80 offensive plays per game.
Here’s a quick look at how Fedora and Anderson’s offenses at Southern Miss fared in terms of average number of offensive plays per game, and number of games in which the offense ran at least 80 plays.
2008: 76 plays, 5 games with at least 80 plays
2009: 69.5 plays, 2 games with at least 80 plays
2010: 79.2 plays, 6 games with at least 80 plays
2011: 74.4 plays, 2 games with at least 80 plays
As you can see, Southern Miss started strongly in Fedora’s first year, and averaged 76 offensive plays per game in his first season. The Golden Eagles even had five games in which they ran at least 80 plays.
The statistics above suggest that the 2010 season was Southern Miss’ best offensive season under Fedora. Was it? Almost. In 2010, the Golden Eagles ranked 18th nationally in offensive yards per game (453.4). In 2011, they ranked 17th nationally (461.4). Close enough.
The reality is, the offensive pacing might never be enough for Fedora and Anderson.
“I was probably still telling our guys at Southern Miss after four years of doing it that we weren’t playing fast enough,” Anderson said. “I don’t know. But I really think we can make some strides. There’s some key things that we can fix that our just from habit of being in one system and going to another.
“And a comfort level that comes with just being under fire. So I definitely think we can improve. I don’t know if we’ll be a finished product by the end of the season but we can definitely get to the point where we can put some pressure on the defense that we’re not ready to do yet.”
The offensive evolution continues on Saturday. It likely will for the rest of the season.