It happened again and again, and kept happening, and so various North Carolina players took the information back to the sideline and alerted the coaching staff that the onside kick was there if the coaches wanted to try it.
“Just from what they were doing the whole time during the game, in order to block us they had to drop back so fast,” Mack Hollins, the UNC receiver, said after the Tar Heels’ 28-27 victory against Virginia on Saturday. “... We just notice stuff like that just from practice and knowing, and we’ve got to let coaches know, because they’re not on the field with us and they don’t really know what’s going on.”
Finally, there came the time. With UNC leading for the first time, 28-27. With time winding down, only about four minutes to left.
It was risky. Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ coach, knew that much. He knew what the reaction would be if UNC attempted an onside kick and Virginia recovered – what it would be if, even worse for the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers then used that good field position to begin a game-winning drive.
Throughout the game they were saying, ‘Look, it’s there,’” Fedora said. “’It’s there.’ And then they said it again and I said, ‘You know what, it’s the right time to do it.’ And you know, it worked. And if not, y’all would be crucifying me right now.”
Instead, the move turned out to be one of Fedora’s shrewdest coaching decisions in his two-plus seasons at UNC. Had the Tar Heels kicked off like normal, Virginia would have started its drive with a little less than four minutes to play – plenty of time to score the game-winning points.
As it was, though, Nick Weiler, the UNC kicker, perfectly dribbled the ball in front of him, the Cavaliers retreated at first, expecting a routine kickoff and Hollins, the receiver, beat everyone to the ball.
He has made a habit of that, anyway, as a receiver and did so again on Saturday, when he caught a57-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 63-yard touchdown pass in the second. His work recovering the onside kick was as important as anything he did earlier.
Hollins walked onto the field with the kickoff team with the understanding that it was up to him to recover possession. That was his assignment.
“I know I’ve got a chance to get the ball, so the pressure’s on me,” he said. “But if I get it, it’s awesome; if I don’t get it, then they’ll hate me for the rest of my career.”
Fedora said the initial suggestion for the onside kick, outside of those suggestions from the players, came from Ron West, the linebackers coach who also works with the kickoff team. West presented the idea, and Fedora gave the final approval.
“We just felt like if we could get it in that situation, that might be the thing that breaks their back,” Fedora said.
After Fedora gave the final go-ahead, word began to spread on the sideline. The Tar Heels were going to try this.
If it worked, they’d have a chance to run out the clock. If it didn’t work, Virginia would start its drive from near midfield.
“I was like, ‘Lord, please let them get the ball back,’” said Nazair Jones, the redshirt freshman defensive end whose interception sparked UNC’s rally with about six minutes to play.
Hollins, who doesn’t lack for confidence, said he didn’t have any doubts.
“If we kick that onside kick, it has to be 100 percent,” he said. “If we didn’t get that, we would never call it probably again in Fedora’s career. Honestly.”