How UNC's play-calling will work with coaching staff changes

Chris Kapilovic, center, is entering is first season in a dual role as the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach and offensive coordinator.
Chris Kapilovic, center, is entering is first season in a dual role as the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. rwillett@newsobserver.com

After a recent North Carolina practice there were a half-dozen microphones waiting for Chris Kapilovic and a few cameras, too, and to him the scene provided proof of his new role on the Tar Heels' coaching staff.

Since Larry Fedora became UNC's head coach in 2012, Kapilovic, who is Fedora's longest-tenured assistant, has been the Tar Heels' offensive line coach. He still is but he also received an off-season promotion to offensive coordinator.

And with that, Kapilovic said with a smile, comes “maybe a little more time with the media.”

It comes with some questions, too, about the most fundamental part of running the Tar Heels' offense: How, exactly, will the play-calling work now that the leader of the offensive line is also the leader of the entire offense?

Kapilovic's dual role as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator isn't often seen in college football. It creates an inherent conflict of location.

On game days offensive line coaches work from the sideline, where they have easy access to their linemen between series. Offensive coordinators, meanwhile, often work from a booth in the press box, where their view of the entire field allows them to dissect an opposing defense.

Kapilovic will remain on the sideline. There isn't any doubt about that. Meanwhile Keith Heckendorf, the Tar Heels quarterback coach and passing game coordinator, will work on game days in the press box, where he'll have a role in play-calling.

“I'm going to stay down (on the field), and we're going to stay with the formula that's worked for us for years,” Kapilovic said. “Keith will stay up top, he'll have his eyes up top. I'll be down on the bottom. We'll share some play-calling duties.”

That's how it worked at the end of last season. Before the Tar Heels ended the season in an Orlando bowl game, Seth Littrell, the former offensive coordinator, accepted a job to become the head coach at North Texas.

And so for the bowl game, UNC used a committee approach to play-calling. Heckendorf was involved. So was Kapilovic. And so was Fedora, who has said that he'll play a more active role in play-calling, too, given the Tar Heels' unique arrangement.

To understand how the play-calling will work, though, one has to understand, first, that UNC scripts many of its plays. That's true for plays early in a game and also for plays early in a series – and also for certain plays in certain circumstances that might arise.

“All the critical situations, we know what we want to run,” Kapilovic said. “And then we typically script the early plays of every drive, and then from there we get rolling. So I'm talking to (Heckendorf) in between (plays, I'm saying) we need to run this, this and this and we're going to roll from there.

“We'll make some checks and obviously he's leaning more heavily on what we want to do in the throw game and I'm leaning heavily in what we want to do in the run game.”

Play-calling isn't Kapilovic's only concern in his new role. He has had to learn how to balance his responsibilities with his particular position group – the offensive line – with the overall offense.

More than figuring out play-calling, that might be the most important difference for him.

“The big thing is I'm responsible for everybody now, right?” Kapilovic said. “So every meeting, I'm talking to the offense. After practice, I'm leading that group. So I've got to do a great job being a leader, I've got to do a great job building relationships with everybody on my offense.

“I'm not just the o-line coach.”

No, he's also the offensive coordinator, and with that title often comes scrutiny when a play-call goes wrong, or when there's a breakdown – like when UNC faltered last year at the end of a season-opening loss against South Carolina.

In that defeat the Tar Heels left Elijah Hood, the domineering running back, on the sideline during the game's critical moments. Fedora was left to answer questions about it. Litrell, too. If something similar happens this year, Kapilovic would play a role in explaining how it happened.

Even so, though he's the leader of the offense Kapilovic will have plenty of help between plays.

“And you can't do that with everybody,” Kapilovic said, “but we have a staff that there's no egos and everybody understands their roles and we work well together. So it's just been a smooth transition for us.”