Fedora's forte: Fast-break football

New UNC coach is a respected spread offense guru, and his version has one goal: Create explosive opportunities for playmakers. Then do it again, quickly.

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2012 

  • It adds up, quickly From 2008-11, Larry Fedora’s spread offense at Southern Mississippi was one of the most prolific in college football. Fedora inherited a pro-style offense that averaged 27.77 points in 2007.
    Year USM ppg  Rank UNC ppg  Rank

— The first playbook Larry Fedora ever wrote might be buried in a box, maybe in an attic, lost to time but not memory. Fedora doesn’t know where it is, but he knows this much: “I don’t want to have to recreate one, I can tell you that.”

He drew it up in the spring and fall of 1999, after Fedora, now the North Carolina head coach, became the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State. It was his first coordinator job, and Fedora knew what kind of offense he wanted to install.

He envisioned a lot of wide receivers, running all variations of routes. He envisioned a quarterback who could throw as well as he could run. He envisioned a perfect balance between run and pass, with an array of skill players exploiting mismatches. And he envisioned all of it happening in a quick, blinding flurry of plays, one after the next.

“I knew that I wanted to try to be a spread-it-out, throw-it-around, be no huddle – what we are today,” Fedora said. “Just at that time nobody was doing it, you know? And so it was hard to imagine that it could work.”

There was one team, and one team only, that did almost exactly what Fedora hoped he could. Tulane, with head coach Tommy Bowden and up-and-coming offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, went 12-0 in 1998 – 11-0 before Bowden and Rodriguez left for Clemson – and nine times that season scored at least 40 points.

In the spring of 1998, months before Tulane began its undefeated season, Fedora was the quarterbacks and receivers coach at the Air Force Academy. He traveled to Tulane to watch a few spring practices, and to meet with Bowden and Rodriguez.

“What it did for me in watching them at Tulane, it wasn’t like you took the exact offense,” Fedora said. “But it reinforced some things that I felt like you could do with an offensive football team … it just reinforced what I believed in.”

After the ’98 season, Andy McCollum became head coach at Middle Tennessee. He had worked with Fedora at Baylor, and two had remained close friends. McCollum hired Fedora, giving him his first opportunity to lead a college offense.

Fedora and McCollum conferred on what kind of offense to run and quickly agreed there really wasn’t a decision to be made.

“We (weren’t) big enough to whip people,” said McCollum, now an assistant at Georgia Tech. “Against the type of people we played, we had to find ways to give our kids a chance. And the spread offense gave us a chance.”

Spreading the workload, too

The “spread offense” has become an ubiquitous, all-encompassing phrase, one used to describe everything from Urban Meyer’s offenses at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida to Chip Kelly’s offense at Oregon to Rodriguez’s offenses at West Virginia and Michigan.

But as sure as there are coaches with different philosophies, there are spreads with different strategies, schemes and terminologies. Some emphasize the passing game far more than the running game. Some employ a no-huddle. Some require a quarterback who’s a gifted runner.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Fedora said when asked what makes his version unique, “and I would say probably the biggest thing is we’re very balanced. That’s one thing that we take a lot of pride in, is that we’ve been able to run the football and throw it out of this style of offense. And most teams do one or the other.

“I’ve always believed that if you can spread the field you can do both.”

The spread Fedora brought to North Carolina is built on pillars of balance and speed. He wants the Tar Heels to pass and run with similar success, and he wants them to do it at a pace that confuses and wears down opponents.

Giovani Bernard, the sophomore running back who set a UNC freshman record with 1,253 rushing yards last season, described Fedora’s preferred pace this way: “Speed. Speed, speed, speed. I think that’s the biggest thing they want – just to be fast out there. And to know what you have to do. Think on the run, think on the move, get adjusted on the run … It’s something that coach Fedora and coach (Blake) Anderson have stressed so much to us.”

The base version will include three receivers, a tight end and one running back. Bryn Renner, the quarterback who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season in his first as a starter, often will line up in the shotgun.

In some plays, Renner will have as many as five targets. In others Bernard might find himself in a position to take advantage of space created by receivers playing the role of a decoy.

“It’s about spreading the field horizontally to create vertical seams in the defense,” Fedora said. “It’s about putting the ball in playmakers’ hands in open space and letting them play. When you spread the field, the defense has to spread out with you. So when they spread out, they create seams in the defense.

“Which enables you to have a better opportunity for explosive plays.”

Heels in for radical change

Fedora played wide receiver, and he liked it when his coaches would allow him and other receivers to spread the field, and liked it when his teams would “throw it around,” he said.

Fedora developed his first playbook at Middle Tennessee. After three seasons, he left to become an assistant at Florida, and left there to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and left there, after the 2007 season, to become the head coach at Southern Miss.

Now at UNC, Fedora is installing this offense for the fifth time. Each time, Fedora replaced a pro-style offense.

“Every single one of them,” he said. “And so I really have a pretty good feel of what to expect in the transition and how hard it is and how long it takes.”

UNC ran a pro-style offense under interim coach Everett Withers, and before him under Butch Davis, and John Bunting and Carl Torbush and Mack Brown.

The spread, then, represents a radical change. When Fedora met with his team in January, he described his aggressive philosophy.

On defense, he spoke of blitzes, pressure and forcing turnovers. On special teams he spoke of attacking. On offense he spoke of tempo and speed, and how the Tar Heels would begin one play almost as soon as the previous one ended.

There were plenty of questions: How would Renner, a traditional drop-back passer, fit? What would come of Bernard, one of the leading returning rushers in the country? Fedora assured doubters that Renner could fit in well, and the running game wasn’t going anywhere.

“The coaches kind of addressed that early on when they were talking to me,” said Jonathan Cooper, UNC’s senior right guard. “They were like, that’s a common misconception that running the ball isn’t in the cards for us, because they said they rushed for 200-something yards (per game at Southern Miss) so that’s exciting to me.”

In the spring, it was clear the Tar Heels were too out of shape to execute at the desired pace, and so they spent months working with Lou Hernandez, the strength coach Fedora hired to train his players to run his system.

The Tar Heels returned to practice in the summer in better shape, and with a better understanding of the offense. But even Fedora, not known for his patience, understands it will take awhile, perhaps more than a season, before his offense is fully installed.

And besides, he’s still learning his team. The idea isn’t for UNC’s players – most of whom weren’t recruited to play for Fedora – to adapt to the spread as much as it is for Fedora to find a way to make his system fit what he has.

“That’s part of being a good football coach, is adjusting to what you have and then tweaking the system,” Fedora said. “I’m not one of those guys that says, hey, this is our system, this is the only way it can be done, you’ve got to fit our system or you can’t play. I don’t believe that.

“I believe taking what you have and then you mold a system around those kids.”

The evolving guru

Mike Gundy went from the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State to the Cowboys’ head coach in 2005. When Gundy began to build his staff he considered one person for offensive coordinator: Fedora.

They also worked together at Baylor and formed a quick – and lasting – friendship. Gundy is one of the bright offensive minds in college football but he relinquished control to Fedora.

“When Larry was here, I just let him do whatever,” Gundy said. “Let him run the offense. And then when he left (for Southern Miss), I didn’t want to change the system, so I coordinated it myself for a couple of years, did all that. When he was here, though, I let him do whatever.”

“Whatever” looked like this: An offense that was on average 85 yards better per game in Fedora’s second year than his first, and 76 yards per game better than that during his third year. The Cowboys averaged 324.8 yards per game in Fedora’s first season as the coordinator and, two years later, averaged 486.3 yards.

In his final season at Oklahoma State, Fedora’s offense accumulated 3,161 yards passing and 3,161 yards rushing. He had achieved perfect balance. Years later, the Cowboys are still one of the top offensive teams in the country, partly because of the seeds Fedora planted. Gundy said Oklahoma State’s offense still includes about 80 percent of Fedora’s system.

Yet it’s an evolving system, in large part because defenses have improved.

“I remember there were times on film where we’d be snapping the ball and you wouldn’t even see but four defensive players on the film,” said McCollum, the former Middle Tennessee coach. “The rest of them (weren’t) even lined up yet.”

Fedora can tell similar stories about opposing defenses standing clumped together in a huddle while his offense lined up, ready to begin a play. Over the years, though, defenses have “improved tremendously” against the spread, Fedora said.

Which makes evolution all the more important.

“The game is constantly evolving,” Fedora said. “And one side of the ball is always trying to get one step ahead of the other and stay there … That’s why you’ve seen there are so many different styles of spread offenses out there, because everybody has their own little twist to it and their own little taste of what they want to do.”

Fedora believed in his version all along, but he began to trust it completely during his second season at Middle Tennessee, when the team went from 3-8 to 6-5. In his third year, the Blue Raiders went 8-3, and averaged nearly 40 points per game.

Fedora’s success there launched his career, and in some ways it helped launch the spread offense, too. Now he has brought it to UNC. His first several months have been a little like that spring and fall when he built a playbook from scratch. There has been experimentation, some inventing and some borrowing from the past.

Mostly there has been a belief that the system will work sooner rather than later.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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