What we learned about UNC football at ACC media days

Rebuilding UNC’s poor team chemistry was an offseason point of emphasis for coach Larry Fedora.
Rebuilding UNC’s poor team chemistry was an offseason point of emphasis for coach Larry Fedora. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

ACC Kickoff has come and gone now, giving way to the time between the end of media days and the start of preseason practice when sportswriters head to their favorite beach for a few days.

Well, at least that's what I did. The drive from Pinehurst, which hosted the ACC's annual preseason media kickoff, to the coast offered plenty of time for reflection and deep thought. I even managed to stop reflecting and thinking deeply long enough to ponder what we learned in Pinehurst about North Carolina football.

Let's get to it:

-The 2014 season was more of debacle than anyone could have known.

You knew the Tar Heels finished 6-7 last season – their first losing season since 2007 – and you knew that the defense was terrible and that the final two games, humbling losses against N.C. State and Rutgers, were ugly. You might not have understood, though, just how bad it was behind the scenes.

When fifth-year seniors Jeff Schoettmer and Marquise Williams met with reporters on Monday, they described a team chemistry that turned toxic last season. When Larry Fedora met with reporters on Tuesday, he described more of the same.

Players lost faith in their coaches. And in each other. And by the end of the season the Tar Heels bore little resemblance to the optimistic bunch that began it with a victory against Liberty that was perhaps foreboding in its sluggishness.

Listen to what Fedora, Schoettmer and Williams had to say at ACC Kickoff about the breakdowns in team chemistry last season:

Williams: “Too many people (were) just all about themselves. We didn't have (anybody) who would come out with comments or a leader that would say, hey man, you need to do this in order to be a good teammate. It was too many I's on the team and we don't have that (any) more. A lot of those guys left and graduated. And we're thankful that we have the people that we have now.”

Schoettmer: “I just don't think the connection between us the old defensive staff was great. I don't want to knock them or anything. Vic was successful previously before he came to UNC. I just don't think our personalities gelled well together. And the scheme, I don't think it was really fit for some of the guys we have.”

Fedora: “It was all kinds of issues. You had guys that would say there were leadership problems. There were guys that say there were chemistry problems. There were guys that said that they didn't really believe in what we were doing. I mean, there was all kinds of things.

Given all that dysfunction, it's a wonder UNC even managed to win six games last season. But the good news for the Tar Heels is …

-Team chemistry could be much better this season.

We hear this kind of thing about every team before every season: how much better guys are getting along and how the issues of the past won't affect the future and how, by golly, things really will be different. And maybe they will be at UNC and maybe it won't. It does sound, though, like the chemistry has to be better this season. It can't get much worse, can it?

After last season ended, Fedora solicited input from the entire team about what wrong wrong – outside of the X's and O's and what happened on the field – for the Tar Heels in 2014. That's when players raised concern about leadership and the trust in the coaches and on and on.

“Every player on the team was required to put something on the board – and there were 100-something issues,” Fedora said. “Some of them the same, some of them different, some of them abstract. But we talked about every single one of them as a team, and how we felt like they impacted our team.

“And then we owned them.”

So that's a positive step for Fedora's program. It sounds, too, like UNC could benefit from some addition by subtraction with the loss of some departed seniors who might have contributed to the division on the team. Williams, though, said the problems went deeper than just the seniors.

“It was a lot of guys that just didn't buy in to what we needed to do to win football games,” he said. “And now everybody's getting (it) – either you buy in or coach Fedora's going to send you home. And he's not playing.”

We shall see.

-The goal on defense: just get better.

It hardly carries the mystique and boldness of Al Davis' old “just win, baby” mantra for the Oakland Raiders but when rebuilding a unit that was as deficient as UNC's defense was a season ago thinking about things like victories might be premature.

After all, before you can win you have to learn to be proficient at, say, tackling. And pass coverage. And defensively you can’t look completely out of place and disorganized, like UNC’s defense looked much of last season.

So how's this for a defensive motto: “Just get better.”

How much better? Who knows. That kind of thing can be difficult to quantify. UNC hired Gene Chizik, who was among the best coaches available, to fix its defense and the expectations are high. Keep them in check, though – at least until the Tar Heels prove some level of defensive competence.

“I don't know how to measure it,” Fedora said when asked how much improvement is reasonable from the defense. “I've been asked that question quite a bit. I don't know how to measure it. The only way I think you can say is we've got to be better. That's it.”

It's a cliché answer and a bit trite but it's the only right answer, too. At least for now.

-Marquise Williams is healthier than he's been in many years.

Williams played through a hip injury last season, one that he suffered toward the end of the 2013 season during a victory at Pitt. He elected not to have off-season surgery so that he could continue to compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting job before the start of the 2014 season.

Williams, though, was just postponing the inevitable. Eventually he was going to need to address his hip and in February he underwent surgery that kept him out of spring practice. The good news about that is the time away, he said, allowed him to work on the mental aspect of the game.

And now he's feeling as healthy as he has been in a long time, too? How long?

“I haven't felt this good since sophomore year in high school,” he said.

Now, it's important to note that sometimes Williams gets a little bit excited. Like when he shared that he hadn't been feeling this good since his sophomore year of high school. He smiled widely at the thought and added that he's “feeling great” and that he's “excited” for the start of practice.

“Now that I'm healthy,” Williams said, “it's going to be scary. It's going to be exciting, too.”

Even if his health left him for a while, Williams' confidence never wavered. But what will it mean for UNC's offense to have a fully-healthy Williams? It could mean he's more elusive out of the pocket. Or that he'll be more adept at making accurate throws down the field.

Williams produced good numbers last season but it was clear that in some games – like the one at Miami, for instance – he just wasn't himself. If he remains healthy it should help the offense become more consistent.

-Larry Fedora sure is sure that football will be OK amid NCAA investigation.

Fedora has maintained an upbeat, energetic persona since he arrived at UNC in 2012. His optimism about the ongoing the NCAA case, though, goes beyond his penchant for taking swigs of Red Bull in front of the cameras and it goes beyond whatever image Fedora has crafted for himself.

No, he's genuinely confident – quite confident, in fact – that his football program will make it out of the NCAA investigation OK. If Fedora is worried about significant sanctions – like a postseason ban, for instance – then he has a future as an award-winning actor.

It's not an act, though. Fedora believes it.

“You know me,” Fedora said when I asked him about why he has told high school prospects not to worry amid the NCAA investigation. “You know I'm a very positive person. And so there's plenty of people out there are going to look at the negative side of everything that we do.

“I'm pretty positive that it's going to turn out good for us.”

Later I asked Fedora if he was worried that his optimism might come back to haunt him. What if the NCAA does come down hard on football, after Fedora and his staff have been telling high school players there's nothing to fear? Is that something Fedora worries about?

“No, not really,” he said. “I don't. … I tell people that I'm positive. They know I'm positive. They know how I feel about things and they know the way I am. I'm pretty energetic, I'm pretty passionate about what I do. And it's my job to set a vision for our program and where we want to go as a program.

“And that's what I'm doing. And I'm doing that to the best of my ability and to what I know. And so I'm comfortable with what I'm saying and I'm comfortable with what I'm doing. I really am. If I wasn't I wouldn't do it, actually. I'm not going to sell my soul.”

Me neither. Unless maybe it fetched me a house with an ocean view.