Someone asked Larry Fedora recently if traveling here for the Sun Bowl felt a little like a homecoming. This is Texas, after all, and Fedora, the North Carolina coach who grew up in College Station, is back in his home state.
But El Paso, a border town where it's possible to walk into Mexico, is a long ways from College Station – about 680 miles. And Fedora and the Tar Heels are a ways away from where they thought they'd be back in August.
UNC began the season with grand hopes, and those hopes appeared justified. The Tar Heels won 11 games a season ago and played in the ACC championship game. Most of the players responsible for that success returned. Mitch Trubisky, the fourth-year junior, inherited the starting quarterback position amid much hype.
For a good while, it looked like UNC was in the midst of another special run. There was the dramatic fourth quarter comeback against Pittsburgh – a game in which the Tar Heels scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds. The next week, there was Nick Weiler's 54-yard field goal to win at Florida State as time expired.
Now those victories seem like a long time ago. After a 48-20 victory against Georgia Tech on Nov. 5, the Tar Heels were 7-2 and 5-1 in the ACC. Despite an ugly 34-3 loss against Virginia Tech in tropical storm-like conditions, UNC was still very much alive in its quest to repeat as Coastal Division champions and play in the ACC championship game for the second consecutive season.
And then …
Well, and then came a Thursday night loss at Duke, where the Tar Heels surrendered a two-touchdown lead in a 28-27 defeat. Followed by the 28-21 loss against N.C. State to end the regular season. And so here we are in El Paso, days before the Tar Heels play against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. This isn't exactly the postseason destination UNC had in mind back in August.
Then again, it wasn't exactly the kind of regular season the Tar Heels envisioned, either. Fedora recently sat down for a state-of-the program interview on everything from how the season ended to recruiting to Trubisky’s future. (Note: this interview took place before the NCAA sent a third notice of allegations to UNC – this one, like the first, naming men's basketball and football.)
Andrew Carter: How do you evaluate the regular season – is an 8-4 finish a disappointment or do you approach that record with more positive thoughts?
Larry Fedora: Well, we go into the season expecting to win every game. And I think we had – there's really only one game that I felt like we didn't have a chance to win after looking at it, and that was the hurricane game. And we had plenty of opportunities to win the others. So the fact that we didn't overcome those and get those is frustrating. But at the same time, there's a little bit of a sense of we've come a long way and we expect to win those games. I think when we first got here that necessarily wasn't the culture. And so I think we've raised the level of the expectations, not only with the players but with our fans and everybody, and so I think that's a good thing.
AC: To get to where you want to go as a program, where do you think you need to make the most progress?
LF: I really think it's more about just continuing on the path we're on, because I think we're on the right path. I think we're definitely on the right path. I think we've made progress year in and year out. I think the culture that we wanted to create has been created. I think guys come in here, the older guys are like, OK, this is the way we do things, you need to jump in line, and that's what happens. So it's not so much the coaches having to do it all now and the coaches having to sell the vision, we've got older players that are showing younger guys, hey, this is how we do things. And this is why we've had success and this is why we're going to be successful going forward. So I think those things have been created. I think we just have to continue to improve and continue to improve our talent and that's through recruiting. And continue to grow our fan base and everybody. I don't know if there's one specific thing that we're going to say, OK, if we do this it's going to put us over the top. I just think we have to continue to keep growing as we've been growing. And it's a process.
AC: What's your general read on recruiting in this cycle and how successful you expect to be?
LF: The response out there from people, I can tell you this – there's a huge difference in the way it was when we got here and where it is right now. And really the state (of North Carolina) is where you see it the most. Because out of state, we've had success, and didn't have issues that way. In state, you see the biggest difference now. Where kids now, they see the success we've had, they're interested in being a part of it. It doesn't mean they just automatically jump in. We still have to recruit the heck out of them. But we're in it with them. Where when we got here there were a lot of guys we weren't even – North Carolina wasn't even a factor for them.
AC: It looks like you guys might not take a full allotment of players, a 25-man class.
LF: Well, you can sign 25 if you have 25 to give. We don't have 25 to give this year.
AC: How many scholarships do you anticipate having, though I know it varies from year to year.
LF: It does. It varies every year. And it varies depending on attrition. I mean, you can only have 85 on scholarship. So if you went off that, 25, you'd have 100 over four years. So you can't do that. So you can only have 85. So it's based on seniors, how many seniors are leaving. How many guys medical (disqualify) – there's so many factors involved. And so that number is fluid. And it changes. And that's the tough part about it, is when you're putting together a signing class, what kind of attrition is there going to be? All those kinds of things. We might have a kid, say a Caleb Samuel, who has to retire medically. Well, you're not anticipating that, and so now you have an extra number in the offensive line. And so now, OK, we can take another lineman if we need to. So as some of those things happen, you're taking some chances sometimes on, 'Can we take another guy?' And then sometimes you don't take him and then a spot opens up and now you're sitting there without guy. So that's the thing that every coach deals with. Because you want to be at 85, you want to be at full force. But it's hard to be at that magic number all the time.
AC: Is that number out there for you guys, how many you have to give, or might it could change?
LF: It could. Yeah, we'll probably at least probably take 20. And we may take a few more. It just depends. That's hard to say right now.
AC: With the understanding that no coach is ever satisfied with this sort of thing, how would you evaluate the talent and depth you’ve built?
LF: I'm starting to feel comfortable with some of the depth we're starting to develop at positions. And the biggest key is in the o-line and d-line, is where you have to build depth.
AC: And there you lose Nazair Jones on the defensive line with his decision to enter the NFL draft.
LF: Right, we lose Naz. You lose Naz and Mikey Bart. So those are the two guys that you lose. And you played a lot of other guys, so you're starting to build some depth there. They're just young guys. So I think we're starting to make some progress there. Offensive line, you said, well, you had four seniors starting, so this could be a big transition year going into next year. Well, Caleb Peterson goes down, John Ferranto goes down. So you end up playing two younger guys almost the majority of the season. And so now you come back and you go, OK, well we're losing Lucas Crowley, and Jon Heck. So now you're only losing two of the offensive lineman. So for the problems that it created this year, it creates some continuity for next year. You've got more guys coming back. So, again, it's the good and the bad with it.
AC: With what you guys lose at the skill positions from Ryan Switzer to Mack Hollins to T.J. Logan – and granted Mitch hasn't announced his decision – do you look at next year as kind of a rebuilding year?
LF: Well, I think the reason people will look at it that way is because a lot of those guys have started for many years. We lost Mack middle of the season, so we've been playing without Mack the old time since then. So, again, you've gotten to see (Austin) Proehl get more reps, which is only going to help him for next year. So I think, Switz, Bug (Howard) has gotten a lot of reps, but I think Switz will be the one that has probably played the most out of everybody. But then you had Thomas Jackson come in and make plays for us in critical games, and then we're redshirting Rontavius Groves, who we think is going to be really good. So I hope that we're going to be OK there, and I think we are. But those guys don't have the game reps.
AC: If Mitch leaves, what do you do at quarterback? I know you have perhaps a transfer prospect you're not allowed to talk about.
LF: Yeah, that I can't talk about – right. We've got three guys there that are young that this spring will compete for the job. And again, we would have to tailor the offense around what those guys are capable of doing, and what they're not capable of doing. But that hasn't changed. We tweaked the offense when Marquise was the (quarterback), what he could do. And then Mitch takes over, we tweak it again to what he could do. So part of that is if you're a coach, or a good coach, you've got to be able to adapt to the personnel that you have.
AC: What's the argument in your mind for Mitch staying in school?
LF: Well, I don't really want to say because I don't want to influence it, either way. That's really important to me, is that first of all, for him to know that he's not going to disappoint me either way. I want what's best for him. And that's very important to me. And so I'm very careful in what I say when we're talking, he and I are talking, because I don't want to influence him one way or the other. I don't want that responsibility. That is strictly his and his family's decision, and my job is to make sure and give him as much information as possible so that he can make a good educated decision, and I can tell you, he's got a very thorough process that he's going through. So I'm proud of the fact that he's looking at it the way he is. So I'm very comfortable with either decision that he's going to make.
AC: How do you anticipate the timing of his decision and when he'll announce it?
LF: I'm sure it'll probably be sometime after the bowl game. … But I'm not going to rush him one way or the other. He's got to feel comfortable about it. And then when you make that decision, it's just like any big decision in your life, once you make it, you don't look back.
AC: What can this do for the program, to have a highly-touted quarterback prospect come through UNC?
LF: I can't tell you how many quarterbacks have reached out to us across the country. High school and transfers. From all over. So they see what kind of development he's had. And we've seen him developed three, four years – they're all seeing one year and they're all like, 'Wow.' But I think any time you develop a good and he becomes a great player, that people notice.
AC: How do you capitalize on the hype building around Trubisky?
LF: Well, yeah, it opens the door for a lot more quarterbacks out there to possibly recruit. And so you know we recruit nationally for quarterbacks, anyway. So it just – you'd be surprised. We've got quarterbacks on the west coast that have reached out to us, that are really interested. Because any time you have a quarterback that develops, it brings attention to your program.
AC: What's your read on how the offense did the second half of the season, the final two conference games especially?
LF: Yeah, I think we underachieved. I think we underachieved. I really do. Well, I've got very high expectations for the offense, first of all. And why so? I don't know that I know the answer for that. I don't know – because there were two games, especially, in November that I thought all we needed to do was just make ordinary plays and we would be successful, and we didn't make those ordinary plays. And so that was really disappointing.
AC: Is there a way you can explain what hampered Elijah Hood this season?
LF: No, not really. I don't know what the reason was … Earlier in the year, he still wasn't healthy, and it wasn't until we got him back at one point and he really ran well that you got to see him at 100 percent, and then I don't know that we got him back at 100 percent. So it's going to be important in the future to make sure we keep him healthy as much as you can.
The Tar Heels against Stanford are seeking their first victory in a bowl game since 2013, when they defeated Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.