Smart Analysis: Fedora's Spread

Larry Fedora knows offense. He's coached it since his playing days back at Austin College, and he has coached in a variety of systems. But for over the last decade he's coached in what has increasingly become his own personal brand of the spread offense.

While there are spread offenses, like Mike Leach's, that are built to throw it all of the time, and those, like Rich Rodriguez's or Chip Kelly's, built to predominantly run the ball, the word that probably best describes Fedora's system is balance. Although Fedora's offense -- somewhat strangely, in my opinion -- has a reputation as a pure, run-first attack in the mold of say, Oregon's, to me it is very different, primarily because I can think of no other offense that does as good of a job being dynamic in both the run and the pass as the one Fedora brings with him to Chapel Hill.

Indeed, in each of the past two seasons under Fedora Southern Miss averaged over 200 yards rushing and over 250 yards passing per game. And in 2007, his last season as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Fedora orchestrated maybe the most balanced offense ever -- at least in terms of yardage balance -- as they averaged exactly 243 yards rushing and 243 yards passing per game (stats). And what has made this even more impressive is that while the quarterback is an important part of the rushing attack, Fedora does not rely on him to shoulder the load in the running game or even to be all that much of a run threat; his offense doesn't need a Denard Robinson or a Cam Newton. Instead, Fedora, along with offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, have devised an attack that uses the quarterback as a threat to make the defense play honest, with the goal of opening things up not for long quarterback runs but instead for the running backs.

As a result, while Fedora, Anderson and company will use spread offense staples like the zone read, their mindset is less about having the quarterback carry the ball than simply to hold that backside defensive end so that the less flashy part of the play -- the "zone" part of the zone read -- puts the running back in position to gash the defense for big yardage. This is the mindset they take to almost all of their running game, from the speed option to the zone read to various counter plays: How can we use the quarterback to be a threat to open things up for the other players?

The best example of this is Fedora and Anderson's use of the "inverted veer," a play Cam Newton made famous at Auburn but that they used at Southern Miss as a great way to get a running back on the edge in space. The term "inverted veer" simply means that it is the inverse of the traditional "veer," which is an option play that has a running back going inside of a defender while the quarterback, who is reading that defender, goes to the outside. This play simply reverses those roles, now with the running back to the outside and the quarterback to the inside. The reads make the play really go, but that's not the beauty of the play. The beauty of the play instead is the blocking scheme, which simply uses the traditional "Power O" blocking scheme that North Carolina ran last season and every NFL team uses. In short, "Power O" blocking has the playside of the line collapse down on the defense, creating a sealed wall to the inside. A backside guard will then pull and lead up to block a linebacker. In the traditional Power O, a fullback will block the defensive end and try to seal him off to the outside. This is, of course, a difficult block, given that this defensive end is often one of the best players on defense and might be a future first round draft choice. This is also why the inverted veer works so well: you can read that guy instead of blocking him, something that is typically much easier to do.

Obviously, if Fedora and Anderson call this play this fall at North Carolina, it will be because they want Giovani Bernard to dash around the end rather than because they want Bryn Renner running the ball consistently. But Renner is 6-foot-3 and around 220 pounds, and his job will not be to run the ball over and over; it will instead be to get a few positive yards and keep the defense honest for next time. And all of this highlights the beauty of a well orchestrated spread: executed correctly (and often at a high frequency tempo), getting positive plays should be easier than it is under the old-school pro-style route, simply because players are asked to do things they can do well, and do them well every time. Despite Bernard's talents, UNC only averaged a little over 138 yards rushing per game. Even without Renner contributing much to the totals -- but with the added benefit of his reads -- I expect that number to increase dramatically under Fedora.

Of course Renner is not the quarterback because he can run; it's because he threw for over 3,000 yards, is by all accounts an extremely hard worker, and certainly looks like a future NFL draft pick at quarterback. Fortunately for him, Fedora and Anderson, as ex-quarterback and wide receiver coaches, really come from pass-first backgrounds and, as with the running game, will seek to put Renner and his teammates in position to succeed.

One staple of a well designed spread passing system is that the reads are well defined "concepts" that carry over from play-call to play-call and provide a framework in which the pieces can be moved around. And the other staple in a well designed spread passing system is that the ball truly is "spread" around. All too often in pro-style systems teams want to emulate the old-school 49ers of the 1980s and simply throw the ball to the two wideouts, and as a result there are a couple of receivers with a bunch of yards and receptions and then a bunch of players with barely any. That hasn't traditionally been the case in Fedora and Anderson's system -- though when Fedora had a player like Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State and now with the Dallas Cowboys, he certainly got the ball plenty. Instead, the receptions and receiving yards have typically been spread among a lot of different receivers, for the simple reason that on every pass play every receiver might get the ball and it is the quarterback -- no, it is the defense -- that decides who gets the ball.

An example. Late in Southern Miss's big upset win over undefeated Houston last fall, the Eagles lined up in a basic trips set, with two receivers and a tight-end to the left and a single receiver to the other side. Anderson, then Southern Miss's offensive coordinator, called a "packaged" play: to the left, the three receivers ran the "stick" concept, which is an old West Coast Offense staple. The outside receiver simply takes the top off of the defense by running deep, while the quarterback looks to the two interior receivers. The middle slot runs a quick flat route while the tight-end runs the "stick," which requires him to run six yards downfield and turn outside, looking for the ball over his outside shoulder. The quarterback reads the flat defender, here the nickel back ("N"). If he widens with the quick out, the quarterback delivers the ball to the stick for a steady move-the-chains play.

But that's not the only option the quarterback has. On the other side they called the "snag" concept, which has an outside receiver angle in to a depth of about six yards while the running back runs to the flat. Normally, the read is also the flat defender, just as in stick: if he widens for the running back in the flat, the quarterback throws it to the outside receiver coming inside on the snag; if he doesn't widen, the ball is thrown to the runner in the flat. And the decision on which side to look to -- the stick or the snag, the left or the right -- is with the quarterback, based on the defensive coverage and, most of all, simply how many defenders are lined up to either side.

Yet there is one more wrinkle here. This was late in the game against Houston, and it was time for a kill-shot to effectively put the game away: Fedora and Anderson told the running back not to simply run to the flat but instead to run a "BUS" route, which stands for "Back Up Sideline." (It's like a "wheel" route, which is a flat and go, but the runner seeks to get up the sideline more quickly and with less of a fake.) And the ploy worked: Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis found the runner streaking up the sideline -- the cornerback collapsed for the snag and the linebacker could not get over -- which set up an important late game touchdown. This is exactly the kind of play, both simple and lethal, that we can imagine Renner hitting Bernard on up the sideline against some unsuspecting ACC opponent.

I fully expect the transition on offense for Fedora and his staff to go relatively smoothly: they return several key playmakers and are bringing in a very sound, smart system. If there are any concerns it is with personnel and depth, particularly at receiver. As Anderson told, "just five receivers to be a spread team is less than you're going to need." But counterbalancing that concern is depth at some other positions, including tight end, where they have Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb. And while the label is spread, what is actually on the field will be dictated by what players step-up, work hard, and make the transition to the new offense. As Anderson described: "There have been years we were four wide; there's been [years] that were a tight-end [and] three-wide. There have been years where we had two tight ends and we only played with two wideouts. It is going to come down to the best eleven that can play the tempo we want to play and be versatile."

Well said. But no matter what the mix of tight ends and wide receivers are, so long as North Carolina has Renner and Bernard -- as well as Fedora, Anderson, and the rest of the offensive staff -- I fully expect them to score plenty of points this fall.

Check back tomorrow for a breakdown of the defense ...

Chris Brown writes and edits and is a featured contributor to Grantland. He has also written for the New York Times, Yahoo! Sports, and Slate.

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