UNC offense learning nothing comes easy after key personnel losses

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2013 

— Reminders of the recent past surrounded Bryn Renner, the North Carolina quarterback.

On the wall behind him was a picture of Jonathan Cooper, the Tar Heels’ former left guard who left UNC as one of the best offensive lineman in school history. Down the hall from Renner, Giovani Bernard’s old UNC jersey hung in a large case.

Renner sat surrounded by reporters earlier this week on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center. The questions were about why UNC’s offense has struggled three games into a long season, and part of his answer focused on the absence of Cooper and Bernard and others who perhaps made success come easier than it should have last season.

“It’s always tough to score points,” Renner said on Monday, two days after UNC’s offense failed to generate much of anything during the second half of a 28-20 loss at Georgia Tech. “I think at times last year we made it look easy, just because of the caliber of players that we had. And every team’s different.”

A season ago, in Larry Fedora’s first as the Tar Heels’ head coach, UNC set single-season school records in total offense, yards per game, points and points per game. The Tar Heels passed for more yards than they ever had, ran more plays per game than they ever had and gained more yards per play than ever before.

The encore, though, hasn’t been nearly as prolific. Or productive.

UNC last season amassed at least 410 yards in every game. Four times, the Tar Heels surpassed the 500-yard mark. Yet already, just three games into this season, UNC has twice failed to generate at least 400 yards of offense.

The most recent of those times came on Saturday in Atlanta, where UNC gained 62 yards in the second half at Georgia Tech. Afterward, Fedora again expressed disappointment in his team’s running game, which gained 101 yards against the Yellow Jackets.

After spending time studying the game film, Fedora earlier this week spread his discontent around his entire offense.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go in our passing game, our screen game, our running game, and I don’t know if there’s an aspect of what we’re doing offensively that we feel good about yet.”

Fedora expected an adjustment period given the loss of Bernard, Cooper and two other offensive linemen – Brennan Williams and Travis Bond – who were selected in the NFL draft. In addition to those four, UNC also lost Erik Highsmith, one of the team’s most productive receivers during the past two seasons.

Even so, though, Fedora said he expected the offense to be better than it has been.

“I really did,” he said. “And that’s disappointing. So we’ve still got a lot of work to do, you know, and we’ve got a long season, and we’ll get there.”

Already, the journey has perhaps been more difficult than Fedora and the Tar Heels’ coaching staff envisioned. Up front, UNC’s rebuilt offensive line has already allowed six sacks – only five fewer than it surrendered all of last season.

The pass protection has been spotty, causing Renner, who’s not known for his mobility, to buy time with his legs. It nearly worked on one occasion on Saturday, when Renner threw an 82-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer, a freshman receiver, early in the third quarter. But a holding penalty nullified the play.

The Tar Heels’ run blocking hasn’t been any better. Space has been difficult to come by up the middle, and neither A.J. Blue nor Romar Morris, the two backs most responsible for filling Bernard’s void, have consistently made plays on the outside.

“It’s steady, we just haven’t had any huge ones,” Blake Anderson, the UNC offensive coordinator, said of Blue and Morris, both of whom are averaging 4.7 yards per carry. “It’s steady. We’re having to go a long way, and the bottom line is we’ll find a way to make a mistake along the way.

“We’re not getting the 40-yard pop, and getting off the field, or the 30-yard pop, and getting off the field.”

Bernard specialized in those kinds of plays – long, momentum-swinging runs that often ended in touchdowns. Outside of Morris’ 26-yard touchdown run earlier this month against Middle Tennessee State, those plays have gone missing from the UNC offense, which ranks 82nd nationally.

Three games into the season, the Tar Heels are already searching for answers to questions they hoped not to encounter. Fedora is hopeful time and experience will solve some of the offense’s problems. The lack of productivity, Blue said, hasn’t been a matter of play-calling.

“The thing is, you can dial up all the Xs and Os you want to, but if we don’t execute them then the job won’t get done,” said Blue, the senior running back. “So I think it’s just execution … obviously this is going to be a slow process because we haven’t completely turned the switch yet.”

When Renner and his teammates walk inside the Kenan Football Center, they are reminded of players who came before. The accomplishments of the record-setting offense from a season ago are still fresh.

Yet Anderson, who said the postgame atmosphere after the Georgia Tech game was like “a funeral” said he reminded his players about a part of last season that’s easy to forget.

“I think we were 1-2 at this point last year,” he said. “And had made some similar mistakes. I just reminded them – we rallied from that. We got better every week.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service