One-on-One with Walt Bell

North Carolina's new football staff has been on the job less than four months and it's certainly been a whirlwind. In a rare break from his busy schedule, assistant coach Walt Bell welcomed the Inside Carolina Magazine into his office for a lengthy interview.

This article is from the May 2012 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

Q&A with Walt Bell

Inside Carolina Magazine
May 2012
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins

alt Bell is serving in his first season as the North Carolina tight ends coach, following a season in which he served as wide receivers coach for Larry Fedora at Southern Mississippi in 2011. He was part of a staff with the Golden Eagles that established a school record of 6,459 yards of total offense and 36.9 points per game, 16th and 15th nationally, respectively.

The Golden Eagles capped the season with a victory over previously undefeated Houston in the Conference USA Championship and a school-record 12th win of the season over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl, and Bell's wide receivers were a big part of the success. The top four receivers all surpassed the 30-reception mark and accounted for 21 of USM's 32 receiving touchdowns.

The Dickson, Tennessee native earned both his bachelor's degree and master's degree from Middle Tennessee State University, criminal justice administration in 2005 and sports management in 2006, respectively. Following his final season at MTSU, Bell worked at Louisiana-Lafayette for one spring, served as a graduate assistant for two years at Memphis, one season as a quality control coach at Oklahoma State, and one season as USM's offensive graduate assistant in 2010.

What were your thoughts when you realized you'd be taking a position at the University of North Carolina?

Number one, incredibly grateful because Coach Fedora did not have to bring me here, and there were a lot of great guys who wanted my job. And by no means, in any way, do I think I'm better than any of the guys that wanted this job. I'm incredibly fortunate and incredibly grateful—grateful for the opportunity, grateful that hopefully he recognized some of the work I did at Southern Miss coaching the wide-outs and winning a bunch of games. But the biggest thing is that I'm glad I have a job, glad I can feed myself, and ‘Let's go find a way to get it done there.'

Even though there have been some high points in its history, North Carolina is not considered one of the traditional powers in football like Alabama, Texas, Florida, Southern California, etc. What were your thoughts in that regard?

At the end of the day, it is all relative. When I was at Middle Tennessee [State] and Louisiana-Lafayette, North Carolina was big-time. To me, when Mack Brown was here and they won 10 games, you mean to tell me that wasn't the big time? This is big-time. We're in the BCS, we're in the ACC. We are one of the top two or three leagues in America—this is as big-time as it gets. Big-time is what you make it. We find a way to win 10 or 11 games here at some point, then we do it again and again, all of a sudden people are talking about ‘North Carolina is the big-time. Why do I need to go [somewhere else] to win football games?' The big-time is what you make it. If we want this thing to be big-time—well, let's make it big-time.

How has the coaching staff and players handled the sanctions handed down by the NCAA?

To preface the question, the unknown is always worse than the known—especially in recruiting when people could tell recruits that we were going to get the death penalty or [other sanctions], and there was an unknown cloud over our head, where you couldn't honestly tell the kids that wasn't the case. Now we know exactly the case. The known, regardless of what it is, is always better than the unknown.

Then, it really doesn't matter what we think about it—it just doesn't matter. It is what it is, and we are going to have to find a way or make a way to get this done, regardless of how many scholarships we've got, regardless of how many kids we can sign. We have to find a way or make a way to make this right. If we don't, we don't deserve to be here.

"It's a great system, it's built well, it's fast.
It's an offense that fits our culture."

What connection, series of connections, or series of events led you to become part of Coach Fedora's staff initially?

Well, I played at Middle Tennessee State. I went to Middle Tennessee State because they were fourth in America on offense. I was a walk-on, and I knew they played a bunch of skill guys. I went there as a quarterback as an invited walk-on in fall camp. I knew if I couldn't play quarterback that they played four wide-outs all the time, and maybe I could find a way on the field there.

The reason they were fourth in America on offense is Larry Fedora—he was the offensive coordinator there. The year I went there, he left there to go to Florida, so I went there to play in this offense. While I was there my wide-outs coach and co-coordinator was a guy by the name of Blake Anderson.

I played for Blake Anderson for three years as a wide-out, so really my connection is my relationship with Coach Anderson. I played for him for three years. The day I got done playing—that whole staff got fired before my senior year—Coach Anderson went to Louisiana-Lafayette. The day I got done playing in the Motor City Bowl at Middle Tennessee State University I put all my stuff in a Ford Bronco and drove to Lafayette, Louisiana and started GA'ing for Blake Anderson at Louisiana Lafayette.

I was with him there, I was broke, there was a little bit more money at the University of Memphis, so I GA'ed at the University of Memphis for two years. From there I went to Oklahoma State—Coach Fedora had just left to go to Southern Miss. When Coach Fedora got a job at Southern Miss he hired Blake Anderson. I GA'ed at Oklahoma State for a year and a half on defense and special teams. I basically begged Coach Anderson to see if there was any way I could come back and work with him again on offense. I was a GA there for a year. We had a guy leave to actually go to Oklahoma State, so we kind of swapped, and Coach Fedora hired me as the wide-outs guy.

I think a lot of that had to do with [the fact] that I have played in this offense. Literally since I was 17 years old I've done nothing but this offense—as a player for five years at quarterback and wide-out, I installed it with Coach Anderson at Louisiana-Lafayette, I was part of Coach Anderson's first staff as the OC. Coach Anderson was the quarterbacks coach and co-OC, and then he was the OC for two and a half or three years, so I have installed this with him twice. This will be our third install together or overhaul together. There is a comfort level there that not a lot of people have together.

Coach Fedora has to be one of the most outwardly enthusiastic people I've ever been around in any profession. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear he runs on nuclear energy. Does his energy level ever dip, and what is it like to be around him?

The biggest thing is, the way that this offense works, the way that we have to practice to make it work, the way we have to approach everything that we do revolves around two things, and that is energy and enthusiasm. The special thing about Coach Fedora is regardless of whether he feels that way or not, that is what you are going to get; therefore, it raises the expectation level around the building because that's the way you have to coach your guys. That's the way we have to approach practice every day.

He is going to demand energy from all the kids. Leadership is like a piece of cooked spaghetti—if you push a piece of cooked spaghetti it wads up in a ball, but if you are out front pulling it will stay in a straight line and that is the approach he takes.

The spread offense is not one-size-fits-all. What sets this version of the spread offense apart from others?

Regardless of what people think, it is run-first, physical—we are a physical football team—end of story. We are downhill, we are physical, we are going to run the football first. Every spread is different, every spread has its strengths.

Houston is a great offense—they are going to throw it 60 times and have huge numbers. Missouri is a great offense. Missouri, formationally, with quads, unbalanced, shifts and motions, they do theirs one way.

Like you said, there are tons of different ways. The thing that we are is we are physical, we are a run-first football team, we are a downhill football team. Everything we do is physical. We throw a perimeter screen, we want to be the most physical group outside the hashes in America. When we run the ball in the box, we want to be the most physical O-line in America. We want the most physical backs in America. Then the tempo—we are going to play as fast as the referees will allow us to play. So it's the combination of the physicality, the tempo, and the ability to create space for your playmakers.

We are going to try to stretch the field 53 yards wide, create vertical seams in the defense. I told someone else, you have the one-foot/10-foot principle. If you play in a big wad, when a running back breaks a tackle, the next-closest guy to him may be a foot away. In this offense, if we break a tackle, hopefully the next-closest guy is 10 feet away. You are creating space in the defense, creating space for your playmakers. The three biggest things are physicality, speed and tempo, and the width at which we play. We are going to make you defend all 53 yards wide of the football field.

"The big-time is what you make it. If we want this thing to be big-time—well, let's make it big-time."

Last year UNC ran the pro-set offense with tight ends and even sub-groups within the position. Explain the role that tight ends play in Fedora's version of the spread offense?

The special thing about this offense is the guys who play tight end here and play tight end well have all played in the NFL and all been great players. Coach Fedora had two or three of them at the University of Florida that played tight end in this offense. At Oklahoma State we had a guy named Brandon Pettigrew, the first tight end taken in the draft. At Southern Miss we had two guys that were on NFL rosters. The tight end in this offense—he's the guy everyone is looking for now, but he has been there for the last eight years. He's a guy that has to be able to play detached, he's got to be able to play standing up, and he's got to be able to win vs. man [defense]. He's also got to be an absolute enforcer in perimeter screens on the edge because he's going to be blocking a guy, nine times out of 10, who is smaller than he is. He has got to be part of that physical presence I was talking about outside the hashes on the perimeter screen game.

Now, that guy also has to be able to come and get attached and do the job inline. He's got to be able to block the ends, he's got to be the hybrid. And he has been for the last eight or nine years that everybody is just now starting to look for. Everyone wants [Rob] Gronkowski, everybody wants [Aaron] Hernandez. We have got to have a guy who has length so when he's attached he's long enough to get everything blocked, but we also have to have a guy that is athletic enough to occasionally win vs. man and win vs. zone in the throw game. He also has to be a great blocker on the perimeter. If you are talking prototype, he's 6-3 to 6-6 at 235 pounds to 245 that can run, catch, and he's also got to be physical enough and tough enough to play attached and get the job done.

You've only had a limited amount of time with the players in your position group, but what have you seen from those guys, and how do you expect the tight ends currently on the roster to adapt?

I think we are really well equipped to do what we need to do. I've got guys right now that I'm really comfortable … They all have their strengths, and they all have things [they need to work on]. … Ebron is an incredible athlete. Jack Tabb is probably the best mixture … he is kind of the jack-of-all-trades, he's very, very, very smart. Same thing with Fitzpatrick, he's good attached, he's very smart. He may not be as athletic as the others, but I've got guys I'm pretty comfortable with. I'm pretty well equipped to do what we need to get done at tight end. I've got some good ones—I'll say that.

Ideally, how many receivers do you have in this offense? And do you include tight ends?

On offense—10-plus. We're not close. And no, [I am not including tight ends].

When you are recruiting, what are the selling points of this offense?

In terms of the offense, what's better, 80 or 60 [plays]? Everybody is going to say 80—that's 20 more opportunities because we are going to get in 80 plays a game to do something. The number of snaps—the number of opportunities—is a huge deal.

Number two, if you are a skill guy—if you are a tight end, wide receiver, running back, quarterback, I personally do not think there is a better offense in America. You are going to get the ball in space. We had 10 guys catch 10 balls last year, six guys catch 20 balls, three guys catch 40-plus, and two guys catch 50. Everybody on the field is a weapon. It's not an offense where one guy catches 100 balls and everybody else hangs out. Every run we have, there is a screen attached to it, so there are more opportunities to get the ball, even on run plays. Everybody in this offense is active. If we are running the ball well that means the wide-outs are blocking; if we are throwing the ball well that means the wide-outs and running backs are catching. For an offensive skill guy there is not a better offense in America—there isn't.

If you are a quarterback, it is an incredible system—you are going to get to play in an offense, you are the point guard, you are the distributor, this thing goes if you go. In terms of decision-making, in terms of making all the throws that you are going to have to make at the next level, in terms of completion percentage, because of the amount of pressure we put on a defense horizontally, this is an offense where you can complete 70 percent of balls, you can throw for a bunch of yards. I know this, if I'm a quarterback I want to go somewhere I can throw it 40-plus times a game… It's a great system, it's built well, it's fast. It's an offense that fits our culture—(snapping fingers repeatedly) it's fast. We want information right now, right now, come on.

A lot of kids will be looking at the NFL. When you talk about that as part of the equation, what information do you present them?

First and foremost, if you can play the NFL will find you and that is regardless of where you play. Take Coach [Gunter] Brewer, for example—he's coached this offense for a long time. There have been a couple Biletnikoff Award winners. You can do special things as a skill kid in this offense. You can do special things as an offensive lineman in this offense. When Coach Fedora was at Oklahoma State, go back and really look at it, Russell Okung, [Brady] Bond. There are a bunch of great O-linemen playing in the NFL right now that played in this system. You can get to where you want to be in this system. We've had some of the great single-season rushers, some of the great career-leading rushers. I forget Coach Fedora's stat, but we ran for 200 yards/game or more for five straight years; we've run for 150 or more for 12 straight years, I believe is the stat. The biggest thing is the balance—we are going to run for 200 or more; we are going to throw for 250 or more. So it's not like if I'm a running back I can't run for a bunch of yards or if I'm a wide-out I'll never touch it. All five skill guys on the field are important; they are all going to be weapons. Everybody is going to get their opportunity to make plays, put something on tape, and play a bunch of snaps.

Bell's tight ends: Jack Tabb, Sean Fitzpatrick, Eric Ebron, Eric Albright

The "old guard" of coaches seems to have a certain way of dealing with the latest technology, mostly in that they don't. I notice this group has embraced social media—Twitter, Facebook, Youtube. Tell me about that.

Well, it's no different than any business, it's no different than any marketing firm—who is our target audience? Our target audience is 16-18-year-old kids. The fortunate byproduct of that is that our fans get a huge glimpse and they get to be a part of that excitement, and they get to see all those things, and they get to enjoy that. The fans get to feel much more a part of what we do every day. They get to see what we do everyday, they get to see how we coach our kids. But at the end of the day, the name of this game is recruiting. If we have great players, they will make me right.

The name of the game is how can we legally get our product and what we do well in front of them as fast as possible, as simply as possible, as efficiently as possible? Right now, that's Twitter, that is not the written word, it's the visual word. What can we show them? Not what can we tell them. What can we show them, what can they see? What is tangible about how we do things and what we do everyday?

We are going to do whatever it takes—we are going to do everything that we can legally do to make sure that we turn every stone, from every piece of paper that leaves this office, every video that leaves this office will all be visually impressive. There will be something tangible and impactful in it. Every post that we can get on Twitter, he is going to be on it. We are going to exhaust every avenue, whether is Facebook, Twitter, Youtube. We are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure we are as current as we can possibly be, and get our product to the people we need to see.

It's no different than a marketing firm; you have to identify your target audience and you have to attack it as hard as you can. We have gotten an incredible response from fans, and everyone is so excited about what we are doing. That is the momentum you create when fans are excited and they are tweeting or re-tweeting the stuff we are doing. That's one more opportunity for a kid who is scrolling down to see that, and that is what we have become.

Lots of schools have rivals. What is your understanding of the rivalries that involve UNC?

Number one, obviously, being on the outside looking in, you know that every game in this state is going to be big. As a 10-year-old I knew North Carolina/Duke was big, North Carolina/NC State was big. Now, as I've gotten older around football and in football every game in this state is big—Duke, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, East Carolina. But I know there is one game that we have got to win—and that is in Raleigh, in terms of rivalry. Every game is important. The most important game is the next game, but there is one I'm pretty excited about. I don't think there is a lot to be said about that. My understanding is that we've been beaten five years in a row by somebody that is a competitor. We have got to fix that.

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