UNC seeks end to uncommon run of safeties

UNC coach Larry Fedora hasn’t liked seeing his team’s three safeties -- but he’s not keen on the idea of running a quarterback sneak in those situations, either.
UNC coach Larry Fedora hasn’t liked seeing his team’s three safeties -- but he’s not keen on the idea of running a quarterback sneak in those situations, either. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Every Wednesday in practice the North Carolina offense begins a series backed up deep in its own territory, close to the goal line, already in danger but a few feet away from even more peril.

And there in those moments, junior receiver Austin Proehl said earlier this week, “We work it.”

The Tar Heels work, specifically, on improving their field position. They work on making forward progress and, especially, work to avoid committing a safety – which is exactly what they've failed to do in three out of their first four games at the start of the season.

Hours after the latest one, which came on Saturday during UNC's 37-36 victory against Pittsburgh, coach Larry Fedora said he'd never seen anything like it. The safety on Saturday followed ones during a defeat against Georgia, and a victory at Illinois.

UNC has played three games against FBS opponents. In all of them, it has committed a safety, which is a play so rare that sometimes a team can go an entire season, or stretch of seasons, without one. Fedora said, in jest, that the Tar Heels were attempting to set the NCAA single-season record for safeties committed.

There is no such record, though, in the NCAA record book. And so it's difficult to know what the record is, or which team has it. According to ESPN, UNC is now one of 14 teams since 2004 – including the 2010 Tar Heels – to have committed three safeties in a single season.

Since 2004 only one team, according to ESPN, has committed more than three safeties in a single season. That was North Texas, which committed four safeties in 2007. The 2004 season is the most recent for which this kind of data is easily available.

Since then UNC is the only team that has committed three safeties during its first four games. Asked earlier this week if the safety problems were correctable, Fedora said, “Yeah.”

“We can execute the play that's called,” he said dryly. “Because all those things were planned and worked, all we need to do is execute them. That’s all there is. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Other than not being in those positions in the first place, that is. During the season-opening loss against Georgia earlier this month, UNC's safety came when quarterback Mitch Trubisky, under pressure in the end zone, threw a screen pass to Elijah Hood, who was forced out of bounds in the end zone.

In the next game, at Illinois, Hood was tackled in the end zone on a running play. And then against Pitt on Saturday, UNC again found itself backed up near its own goal line. The Tar Heels attempted to run a shovel pass, Trubisky to Ryan Switzer, and the Panthers stopped Switzer before he could escape the end zone.

Fedora acknowledged the play-calling could have been more conservative on those three plays. A quarterback sneak perhaps. Then again, he said, “I really don’t like running a quarterback sneak because I think it’s a wasted play.”

“Now, OK, it’s second and long in this situation so I’m almost guaranteeing I’m going to be punting out of my end zone,” he said. “I don’t like that. If you look at the past and look at what we’ve done, we’ve made some huge plays backed up.

“Just for whatever reason, we’re working the other way right now.”

It has been uncanny. Three safeties in three games against FBS opponents.

Fedora hasn't seen anything like it because it's never happened at UNC during his tenure – or perhaps during any other coaching tenure, ever. The Tar Heels prepare for these situations. Every Wednesday they'll back up the offense and try to execute.

They’ll try to move forward. Most of all, they’ll try to not do what they’ve done three times already.

“We'll continue to work on it,” Proehl said, “we'll continue to get better at it and it won't keep happening.”