Preseason Letterman's Roundtable, Part II

Inside Carolina's Buck Sanders hosts a collection of former Tar Heels for a roundtable discussion previewing the 2012 season. In the second part of this four-part series, the group takes a comprehensive look at the UNC offense.

Buck Sanders – Bryn Renner was recruited by Butch Davis, and even though he was in a spread system in high school, that's actually not what he signed up for. Now he's going back from pro-style to the spread. How do you think he'll make that adjustment? Matt, you can chime in first ...

Matt Baker: First, I want to go back and talk about the spread for a minute. I think we use that term, in a general sense, too much now. The spread isn't one offense anymore; it's so widespread through all of college football, and even some spread tendencies are in the NFL. There's no one spread to say, 'this is the spread; this is what it is.'

I think Coach Fedora's offenses in the various places he's been have showed that. Every school is a little different. You look at the spread at Oregon, that's completely different than the old Urban Myer, Tim Tebow spread at Florida. You look at the spread at Oklahoma State and that's another system. So, I don't want to pigeon-hole a spread to be something in particular because it can be so many different things. I think they are going to adapt this offense to fit Bryn Renner and fit the other players on the team. His adjustment into the spread, I don't think, will be as a big of a deal. I think him getting his footwork down out of the shotgun is going to be one of the biggest obstacles for him; to catch the ball quick and that's all about footwork, to get it out of your hands quicker. I think if he gets that down, this offense is going to fit him perfectly and he is going to have a ton of success.

Buck Sanders – Matt makes a great point. When you talk about spread offenses, they're all over the map in terms of what they do. Most people wouldn't expect that Southern Miss rushed for over 200 yards a game last year. Most people, when they think spread, they think throwing the ball all over the place, when Southern Miss actually ran the ball more often than they threw it last year.

Brian Chacos: I think Matt would know better than the rest of us. Just talking about the adjustments that Bryn is going to have to make, its the real bullets flying and not reverting back to his old habits of pro-style footwork and mechanics and thinking about what he was doing last year in the game situation. Obviously, he's only had 15 practices and the Spring Ball scrimmage under his belt; he's going to have training camp. How many real, live opportunities, with a real, live rush coming at him, is he going to have? So he's going to get that game experience September 1st and, from there, I think he's just going to get better and better with it. Those sort of adjustments are going to come with the live fire and I think he's really taken to Coach Anderson and Coach Fedora and I think he is going to make the adjustments and do what it takes to be successful.

Buck Sanders – Okay, let's talk about a subject near and dear to my heart and near and dear to a couple of you guys' heart, I think, and that's the offensive line. You know, I read Phil Steele every year cover to cover, and I'm looking at my copy right now and he says that North Carolina has the 9th best offensive line in the country. Even though I've been optimistic in the past about the offensive line, and been proven overly optimistic there on occasion, there seems to be some basis in reality to expect a move forward. Scott you want to tackle that one off the top?

Scott Lenahan: Of course I'm hyped about our offensive line this year; I think Chacos is right there with me. Just look at how deep the talent is. People say that the second string that we have hasn't gotten a lot of playing experience, but if you just look at the quality of talent that we've gotten in there, that Coach Pittman brought in, it's ridiculous. Half these guys were top ten coming out of high school, or top 20, which we really haven't had that kind of depth in the offensive line since, I can't remember it; you have Hurst; you have Cooper. I think what's going to be a pleasant surprise this year is No. 60, Bodine, at center. He's really impressive. I'm excited to see him.

Brian Chacos: I definitely think that when you look at the landscape of college football, that's really what separates, in my opinion, the SEC caliber football from the other conferences. I really think it's the offensive and defensive line. It's really that talent up front. You've got to give Coach Pittman and Coach Davis their kudos on that with recruiting those kind of guys. They did a phenomenal job. I happened to see Jonathan Cooper the other day and that guy has an unbelievable physique; he's in unbelievable shape going into training camp. He's looking very good and I think we will see it once he gets to training camp. This is the best looking group of guys I seen for the 15 years I've been really following Carolina football. So, I think they are going to be fantastic. I would definitely agree they're a top 10 offensive line unit in the country. Obviously, I think Gio is really going to benefit from this group. But, I think Hurst is going to be a phenomenal talent; I think he's a first round pick in the future. He obviously is a left tackle guy. I'm going to watch him closely throughout the season. But again, I think there is a ton of talent on this line.

Mark Paschal: Yeah, Chacos, I agree with you 100 percent about Hurst. But Cooper and Brennan Williams, the other tackle, those are three we are talking about are going to be picked in the NFL draft. We haven't had a first round tackle or a first round guard, not even a second round guard in, maybe, ever. It's exciting to watch and see these guys grow as they have, because you put Hurst in as an 18-year-old true freshman against LSU and the kid held his own. We just haven't had that type of talent on the offensive line here ever that I'm aware of.

Scott Lenahan: I don't know if physique is a word we want to use with offensive linemen (laughing).

Buck Sanders– I've heard all those guys have lost weight, but I don't know if "physique" is where we really want to go with that.

Brian Chacos: I don't know if any of us have a very good physique on the offensive line, but Coach Lou has got these guys going. Obviously, he's doing something right; they're looking good, I'm telling you.

Matt Baker: Chacos has always considered himself to have a body of a big wide receiver.

Buck Sanders – He had a cup of coffee as a tight end at UNC, didn't he? Wasn't he originally brought in to be a tight end?

Brian Chacos: I originally came in as a tight end, but I slowly ate my way onto the offensive line.

Matt Baker: Chacos was my roommate for four years. There was one winter break he was a tight end when we left after the season. Next thing you knew, he came back in January as he was, all of the sudden, an offensive lineman.

Brian Chacos: Buck, that's how it works; that's how it works.

Buck Sanders – Now let's talk about one of the biggest beneficiaries of the offensive line, Gio Bernard. He had a spectacular year last year. But, I've talked about it with Brian some and some other guys, I think he could have even a bigger year this year in a one-back offense. As I said, Southern Miss had over 200 yards rushing a game last year. They do it a different way; they take a different approach, but they still run the ball well, and I think Gio fits it pretty well. What do you guys think?

Mark Paschal: I'll jump in from a defensive perspective on this. When you're going up against an offense that spreads the field like we plan on doing, you really strain the linebackers and defensive ends, and the safeties – that's your core run support along the defensive tackles. When you spread these guys out, it creates running lanes. With Gio's vision and his balance, he's one of the elite running backs in the country, I believe. Just from his stature, he's 5-8, 5-9 on a good day. It kind of reminds of me of a Ray Rice-type build, a Maurice Jones Drew-type guy, where he's so low to the ground; he's got great vision, quickness, and balance, he's going to be really tough to stop. He was very successful in the pro-style offense running the ball, running the power, running the zone, in that fashion. You put him six yards behind the line of scrimmage, standing next to the quarterback so he can see the whole field, like the quarterback can see, and have that whole defense spread out, there's going to be a lot of running room for him; there's going to be a lot of lanes opening up. I think he's going to have an outstanding year. I think he's an elite talent and I think he may be one of the best running backs that come through in a long time. So, we're very lucky to have Gio on our side.

Scott Lenahan: To piggyback on what Mark said, talking about creating lanes, I think that's exciting, even to be an offensive lineman and blocking for Gio – I would love that, man. You know what; he makes your bad blocks look good. Say you don't get a front side on a defensive tackle; he can cut it back and make you look good. I think that's what kind of separates him, is that he has that vision, that speed and that quickness – he'll create those cutback lanes. I think this offense that Coach Fedora has definitely benefits him.

Matt Baker: I'm not positive he's going to be "better" in this offense. I think he has so much skill; that's going to shine regardless of the offense he plays. Probably the one thing I'm most interested to see this fall is how he performs in this offense, if it fits and if he seems comfortable. Running out of the shotgun for running backs is a completely different animal than running out of the I-(formation) and taking handoffs a little deeper and coming downhill once you get the ball. I was around a lot of running backs who liked it; they were better out of the shotgun. But others who were great in pro-style offense just never seemed comfortable getting the ball sort of at a standstill or running sideways coming across the quarterback's face. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to that. He has all the skill in the world to be able to do it, but it will be interesting to see how it works out.

Buck Sanders– Let's move on to the final phase of the offense, the wide receivers, although we could throw the tight ends in this group too, but I was looking at Southern Miss's stats, they had seven guys that had over 400 yards receiving on that team. Last year, North Carolina had three. So, that tells you that in this offense, they like to spread the ball around; they like to get it to multiple guys. The problem is, right now there aren't multiple proven guys at wide receiver for UNC. We know about Erik Highsmith. We know a little bit about some other guys. But, who is going to step up and catch all these passes that Renner is going to be throwing?

Brian Chacos: Here are the two guys – I really think Eric Ebron is going to have a breakout year. This is a guy who is going to be able to stretch the field vertically in the middle. I really think just after watching him at the two spring practices and the Spring Game, this guy is a mismatch nightmare. I know Mark can talk more about a guy who can come across the middle and can cause linebackers a lot of headaches with such a speed and size mismatch. I mean, the guy is a legitimate 6-5, 245, that can run and he's strong and built well. He can use his body almost to go up and get a rebound-type when he's catching the football. He's got great hands. I think he's going to be utilized really well by Coach Fedora.

But also Quinshad Davis, I think he's going to come in, honestly, he's got all the accolades from high school and Coach Brewer is going to do a good job coaching him in training camp. I think they're going to go ahead and put him right in. In mean, these coaches don't necessarily owe the players they inherited anything. When you've got a new staff coming in, you've got to put the guys you recruited right in and give them opportunities. Obviously, he's another big guy, 6-4; he's got the size and he's got the speed. They're going to put him right in and give him a shot to show them what he's got.

Mark Paschal: This is the one position group that really is making me nervous going into the season. We've got a lot of guys that have been okay, have done well at times and have struggled at others. Whether that's an offensive schematic thing, whether it was something else, it could be a lot of different things. This is the one position group that I'm the most concerned about. I'll tell you that we've got a guy, Erik Highsmith, who is now a senior, it's time, Erik; it's time to go. We've got Jheranie Boyd, also a senior; it's time to go. They've had the past three years to continue to learn and continue to grow. Okay, you're seniors and you've got a whole new system, it's time to step up and really be accountable for that position group and make sure you guys aren't the weak link. Without those guys, we won't be able to move the football like we want to on offense. And, with the no-huddle tempo, with getting on the ball, these guys have got to be in great shape. We need not just one, not just two, we need six, seven, eight wide receivers that can get in there and play to keep these guys fresh. So, this is the one position group that I'm sitting here looking at the depth chart kind of questioning myself saying, 'okay who are going to be the guys who are going to step up?' It can't just be one or two; it has got to be a whole group. And, there are a lot of unproven guys, like Brian said, it's going to be some freshmen, it's going to be some sophomores, but those two guys - Erik Highsmith and Jhay Boyd - those are the two guys that are going to have to step up and lead this group and make sure they're making all the right steps and strides to learn this offense, understand the concept. They've got to block for each other on the screens; they've got to block in the run game. So, this is the one group that I'm really scratching my head moving forward this year. But, I think this could be a great opportunity for these guys to really catch the ball and be explosive. It's going to be one of those things where you are going to have to continue to recruit these types of elite receivers every year to play in this system. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Matt Baker: I think it needs to be said as well that in an offense like this where you're spreading out, playing four, five receivers, this type of offense doesn't need - it always helps - but it doesn't need world beaters as wide receivers. It's not one-on-one match-ups on two-man routes, one man double-move routes. This offense doesn't require that as some pro-style offenses do. That being said, it's always great to have some world beaters out there. But, the way the offense is running, the pace and speed you go, it doesn't require as much as a pro-style offense would. I think depth is obviously a concern, but this position, all around football, always has a way of finding some hidden gems. You've got a guy like Victor Cruz comes out of nowhere. I'm talking the NFL here. You've got a guy in Seattle, the Baldwin kid, undrafted kid, who comes out and is their best receiver. This position has a way of bringing out some kids that you wouldn't have expected before the season. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Buck Sanders – So, Matt, you think this is a position in this offense where a young guy can step in and make strides really quickly?

Matt Baker: Absolutely, especially in this offense, it's pretty simple. A lot of stuff is built in; there's a lot of shorter routes; there's a lot of screens. Get the ball in the receiver's hands quickly and let him make plays. That makes it a lot easier for young receivers to adapt. Whereas, you're in a pro offense you have site adjusts on safety blitzes and hops on linebacker blitzes; receiver's heads get spinning, especially when you put them inside the slot in pro-style offenses. There's a lot of adjustment and a lot of stuff they're not used to doing in high school. Whereas, when you're in an offense like this, everything is sort of built in; you know what route you run; you're in the same position quite a bit, a lot of screens, a lot of quick passes. So, I think it's easier in an offense like this to come in and make an impact as a freshman receiver.

Brian Chacos: I was just saying, to Matt's point, what he just brought up was a great point. I think one of those guys could be T.J. Thorpe. He's got such great moves; such explosion on the return game that he doesn't necessarily have to be a guy who necessarily might need to know everything about what's in the playbook, but could learn the majority of it or at least a good portion of it, but can create a lot of plays, say off the those screens or different things like that. So, I think T.J. could be another guy to definitely put on the radar to have a big season this year.

Buck Sanders – Well, he's actually on the top of my list because of, as you mentioned, his skills in space and in the return game. Renner says he's got the best hands on the team - that's what he said in Greensboro. So, you combine those two, if he can catch the ball, and he can catch it in space, you would expect him to have a big year.

(Check back tomorrow for Part III – Defense …)

Featured Lettermen in Today's Roundtable

  • Matt Baker quarterbacked the Tar Heels in 2005, while amassing the 7th-highest season passing yardage total in school history. Following his UNC career, he was a member of six different NFL teams.

  • Brian Chacos's UNC career (2001-06) included 35 starts at offensive tackle, a selection to the Lombardi Watch List, and All-ACC Academic honors.

  • Scott Lenahan manned the center position in Chapel Hill from 2003-07, overlapping two coaching regimes. Nicknamed 'Tank' for his weight room exploits, he earned the top senior honor on the '07 Tar Heel team.

  • Mark Paschal captained the Tar Heels in 2008. As a middle linebacker, he led the team in tackles prior to a career-ending injury and didn't miss a game in his four-year career up until that point.

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