Larry Fedora, the North Carolina coach, sounded proud and happy and thankful – all those things – when he spoke recently about Seth Littrell leaving his staff to become the head coach at North Texas.
The news leaked out last Saturday, before UNC played against Clemson in the ACC Championship game. By the time the Tar Heels had walked off the field with a 45-37 defeat, it was official: Littrell, who had been UNC’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons, was headed to North Texas.
“I can’t say enough great things about what Seth did,” Fedora said on Saturday, after his team’s loss against Clemson. “Seth came into this program and he was the new guy in that room. You know, we asked him to come in and learn our offense and learn our terminology and not step on any toes while he was in there and lead that group, and he did that.”
Fedora went on to say that Littrell did a “tremendous” job and that he’s “going to be a great head coach.” It had been a “tough decision” for Littrell, Fedora said, before Littrell made up his mind to leave.
And so Littrell will be missed. The offense he leaves behind, though, isn’t likely to look all that much different after Fedora hires Littrell’s replacement.
At some college football programs, the departure of an offensive coordinator also means the departure of an offensive philosophy. It means that a team’s plays will be different, that the schemes will be different – that the offense might look radically different than it did before the coaching transition.
But that’s not the case at UNC, and it won’t be – regardless of how many offensive coordinators come and go – as long as Fedora remains the head coach. When Fedora hires Littrell’s replacement, Fedora will be working alongside his third offensive coordinator since he became the head coach about four years ago.
Yet the offense has been basically the same since Fedora arrived from Southern Miss, and it will remain the same – give or take some tweaks here and there – as long as Fedora remains in Chapel Hill.
“I can tell you the offense isn’t going to change,” Fedora said on Saturday.
Which is a good thing, given the results. UNC enters bowl season averaging 7.33 yards per play, which the highest in the nation. The Tar Heels are averaging 486.9 yards per game, which is the best of Fedora’s four seasons, and they’re also averaging 40.9 points per game, which is the highest average – by three-tenths of a point – of Fedora’s four seasons.
The offense is in position, too, to improve. UNC loses some important players on offense – namely quarterback Marquise Williams, offensive guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis, all seniors. Ryan Switzer, the junior receiver, might decide to go pro, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a shock to see Mack Hollins, another junior receiver, do the same.
But there’s a lot coming back, too, starting with Elijah Hood, who has run for 1,345 yards and 17 touchdowns. The offensive line should return everyone except for Turner, the receiver position has a lot of depth and Mitch Trubisky, the sophomore quarterback who has shown promise at various moments the past two seasons, should make the transition at quarterback as seamless as possible.
The only uncertainty about the offense: Who will be calling the plays? Or, at least, most of the plays.
Though UNC runs Fedora’s offense up-tempo spread offense – the one he first developed in 1999 during his first year as a coordinator at Middle Tennessee State – he allows his offensive coordinator the freedom to call plays. Most of the time, that is. Fedora calls plays from time to time – especially in a game’s most important moments – and he’s probably more involved in the play-calling than he’d admit publicly.
Then again, it’s his offense.
“So no matter who we bring in,” Fedora said, “the biggest thing is the next person is going to – he’s going to be able to adapt to what we do and maybe bring something to it and add to it.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Fedora filled the position internally. Keith Heckendorf, the UNC quarterbacks coach, fits the mold of a candidate that’d be attractive to Fedora: Heckendorf is young, energetic, a good recruiter and the players he coaches seem to respond well to him. Heckendorf already knows the UNC offense, as well, and so the transition wouldn’t be difficult for him.
Another possibility is Walt Bell, who was UNC’s tight ends coach during Fedora’s first two seasons. Bell has been the offensive coordinator the past two seasons at Arkansas State, where Blake Anderson, who was UNC’s offensive coordinator during Fedora’s first two seasons, is the head coach.
Fedora offered Bell the job two years ago but Bell, loyal to Anderson, followed Anderson to Arkansas State. Would Bell, who has a lot of autonomy at Arkansas State, and who has a good thing going there on a staff that seems to be up-and-coming, come back to UNC? It wouldn’t be as easy of a move as it might look on paper.
And that’s in part because whomever Fedora hires won’t be running his own offense, per se. No, he’ll be running Fedora’s offense, and he’ll be expected, as Littrell was, to “not step on any toes.”